Survival of the specialist

Despite recent proposals for economising in the legal system, agency work continues to flourish. A slow economy and an increasingly litigious society have resulted in a steady flow of agency commissions.

The prospects, for those firms that have invested in providing this service, look good.

As firms have recognised the potential of agency business, many have established specialist departments to tap the market. As a result, it has become increasingly competitive and it is now quite common for solicitors to shop around and compare charge-out times before placing a commission.

But volume is vital. It is easier for firms that already handle a considerable volume of agency work to offer a cost effective package. After all, it is relatively straightforward to deal with one more hearing while at the courts than to make a special visit for a one-off piece of business.

But while cost is certainly important, reliability, experience and the ability to provide a quick response are still regarded as key to success.

Bevan Ashford, which has offices throughout the South-West, in Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter, Plymouth, Taunton and Tiverton, has had a dedicated agency department for the past 15 years. Over that period, the volume of the firm's agency work has grown dramatically, much of it through repeat business.

Agency work escalated during the recession and has not significantly decreased as the economy improves. Matrimonial and civil litigation work has remained steady over the past five years. And mortgage repossessions work, which expanded as a result of the depression in the housing market, did not, as everyone expected, drop away as the recession eased and the housing market recovered. Building societies, which had their fingers seriously burned, have learned from their mistakes and are now more inclined to pursue householders into the courts sooner rather than later to collect arrears.

One of the main challenges of agency business is the last-minute nature of the work. Despite the best intentions, many solicitors do still leave it very late to supply instructions to their agency contacts.

This requires those in the agency business to assimilate information, which occasionally can be extremely intricate and complicated, within a very short period of time if they are to represent the client effectively.

Those in large firms are well-placed to cope with these demands, having the benefit of additional resources and specialist expertise on hand to respond to emergency situations.

A respectful attitude towards the courts helps to ease some of the pressures brought about by the demanding nature of agency work. Bristol benefits from an excellent forum of judges who are accommodating and understand the difficulties facing agency teams.

Over the past 15 years this firm has witnessed a change in attitude towards this potentially lucrative work. Far from regarding it as a peripheral activity, this firm has always welcomed agency business for the financial contribution it makes as well as for the new instructions it brings in.

The firm also provides an internal agency service for its other regional offices.

Other firms throughout the UK are commissioned as required and are selected on the criteria of size, reliability and speed of service.

The question of legal aid cases remains a topical issue among firms, many of which think long and hard before accepting this type of agency work.

Once again, large firms are in a better position to accept legal aid agency work because they are more able to cope with the delay often experienced before accounts are settled.

Opportunities for agency work are buoyant. As with any firm which has invested in this niche market for many years, this firm has gained considerable expertise. But as the market becomes increasingly competitive, nobody can afford to rest on their laurels.