Contracting the agent

The number of agency networks has burgeoned recently as demand for contract solicitors has risen. As Rebecca Towers says, firms are increasingly realising how freelancers can improve the bottom line. Rebecca Towers is a freelance journalist.

From higher court advocacy to mortgage repossessions, some lawyers now find that agency work can offer the breadth of practice, flexibility and financial remuneration they have sought in an increasingly uncertain workplace.

The advent of agency networks is attracting a growing number of legal agents. Members are usually marketed by region and specialisation and encouraged to take part in the business, marketing and training programmes offered by such organisations.

LawGroup boasts a membership of 75 law firms throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Jersey. LawGroup spokesman Aewyn Lewis explains that one of the main objectives of the network is “to enable the firms to gain knowledge from each other in terms of running practices”.

The use of the network as an agency facility is becoming “extremely common”, says Lewis. “Members frequently use each other, and some [members] even have specific arrangements with each other to deal with particular areas of work.”

Lewis hopes that LawGroup's plans to set up an intranet – a semi-private computer network – will facilitate the development of LawGroup's agency communications by “passing on agency instructions by e-mail”.

“Independence and flexibility are the biggest advantages of freelance work,” says Natalie Siabikin, chairman of the Freelance Solicitors Group, a social and information network for freelance lawyers in England and Wales.

However, freelancing does carry a great deal of responsibility. “You need a certain amount of experience and confidence,” says Siabikin. She recommends a minimum of five years' experience before embarking on a career as a legal agent.

“Firms want someone who knows what they're doing. They want a specialist and they want quality, but they don't always want to pay for it. Fighting for your rates is a disadvantage,” says Siabikin.

It is a factor which is exacerbated by agencies sending out standardised fee rates to potential clients. Despite this, agencies remain a valuable source of work for freelancers.

LAWWISE, an agency specialising in advocacy work, was set up in 1996 by barrister John Entwistle. “I saw [agency work] as a lucrative avenue in which to provide a service for solicitors. Realistically I didn't want a lot of the solicitor-based work. We do a lot of advocacy, predominately uninsured loss recovery,” says Entwistle.

“LAWWISE takes briefs from firms of solicitors and large insurance companies. Average agents don't do that kind of agency work,” explains Entwistle. “Most instructions are outside the region – the provinces mainly.”

According to Entwistle, the agency market is growing fast and he now finds himself having to turn work down.

“I'm expanding rapidly. For quality agencies there's an expanding market.”

In response to the growing demand for property law representation, Conquest Legal Marketing set up a National Solicitors' Network in 1991 – an initiative providing legal services to both corporate and institutional clients as well as to the public from a national panel of solicitors' firms.

Agency work can be “a quick and very profitable piece of business”, explains Conquest's chairman Michelle Davis. It was this belief which led the firm to launch the County Court Agency Service in 1993, providing network cover for all county courts in England and Wales.

“It was initially aimed at the in-house legal departments of lenders,” says Davis, particularly to undertake repossession hearings. Since then, the network has been adopted by a variety of other organisations who started to outsource work to panel management experts, of which Conquest is one.

As a result, Davis is confident that agency work will continue to grow. “During the last couple of years, the bulk of work has been in the area of debt recovery and mortgage repossession. Now that the housing market is picking up, clients say business is increasing – I don't anticipate a slump.”

Agents are expected to benefit from the extension of solicitors' rights of audience, announced by the Lord Chancellor last month. With only 624 out of 70,000 practising solicitors currently having higher rights of audience it is a move welcomed by many, including Kerry MacGill, chairman of the Solicitors Association of Higher Court Advocates.

“We've been campaigning for equal opportunities in higher courts to retain the highest possible standards and ethics for years,” says MacGill.

“I'm a great believer in taking people from the police station through to court. Clients find it preferable to have continuity of service instead of meeting their barrister for the first time on the morning of their court case.”

MacGill predicts that the Legal Aid Board will be offering contracts sooner rather than later. “A lot depends on the range of financial control the Bar will expect us to exercise,” says MacGill.

“For example, whether we will be responsible for the Crown Court budget – solicitors will have to work out whether it's cheaper to do advocacy in-house or use the Bar.”

Litigation support company Elliott Slone is a commercial litigation specialist which supplies law firms with teams of paralegals. Martin Crosby, Elliott Slone's permanent recruitment manager, says the main advantage of its brand of agency work is that it has the resources and the flexibility to upgrade and downgrade teams at a moment's notice. This also means that it can quickly tailor its services to fit its clients' needs.

A further benefit is the centralisation of administration. Clients do not need to deal with payroll, national insurance or recruitment issues, explains Crosby. “The bottom line is that it saves clients hassle and it's a good solution for personnel departments.”

Fred Mason, co-ordinator of the agency department at Cheltenham firm Charles Russell, believes agency work has remained relatively static over the past couple of years and may have even dropped off a little due to the reduction of mortgage repossessions – many agents' “bread and butter” work.

Working as an agent allows legal staff to cover unfamiliar areas of law such as arbitration work, says Mason. Agency work offers lawyers – particularly paralegals – the opportunity to do advocacy work as well as being able to research “something a bit novel”.

The majority of British solicitors do not have the facilities to deal with foreign legislation, but when such cases do arise they can instruct a number of specialist foreign agents in the UK who will deal exclusively with the foreign issues arising from a case.

Bennett & Co has offices in London and Cheshire and it covers France, Greece. Cyprus, Turkey and, more recently, the US and the Caribbean. Apart from the personal injury work it does, a typical case may involve an English estate with some property and a bank account in another country, explains partner Trevor Bennett.

This is where a foreign agent would step in and assume responsibility for the overseas probate work. Fees tend to be based on hourly rates, taking into account costs incurred abroad and the agents' level of specialisation.

The flourishing UK financial and property markets over the past 15 months, and the strength of the pound against the Spanish peseta and the Portuguese escudo has led to a growth in foreign agency work. As a result, Bennett & Co has recruited another Spanish lawyer for its London office.

Another practice which fields out work both abroad and in the UK is London-based Moon Beever. The firm belongs to Euro-Link for Lawyers – a network and foreign exchange group of small to medium-sized practices dealing with foreign casework.

Litigation partner at the firm Frances Coulson believes there is a trend to liaise with courts on a remote basis, a practice she does not endorse. “I still think you need someone on the spot to deal with advocacy,” says Coulson, adding: “There is no substitute for sending local advocates [who know] the court.”

Moon Beever briefs its agents fully, says Coulson, and that includes any tips on the working practices of a particular court. Increasing use of information technologies such as e-mail and the Internet have had a positive effect on agency work and the quality of instructions.

“It allows you to transmit information more easily,” says Coulson, “which provides a better service.”

Particularly from an agent's point of view, courts need to be more IT advanced but ultimately, says Coulson, “the law is a people business, and people like dealing with people, not machines”.