Join the networking club

Local and national agency networks are becoming popular, discovers Leo Schulz.

One quick route to agency work is to join a network. There are several to choose from which offer a variety of services and attract a range of work.

Conquest Legal Marketing was established in 1991 with the aim of cross-referencing conveyancing. Unfortunately, the property slump got in the way and conveyancing work disappeared just as the network was opening. In response, it devised a scheme to market its members' services to mortgage lenders needing representation in repossession hearings.

The idea worked. A nationwide network of agent solicitors with experience in property law turned out to be exactly what mortgage lenders wanted.

“Lenders do a lot of litigation,” says Conquest executive Michelle Davies. “They don't want firms that they don't know turning up. They don't know what the quality will be or what the charge will be.”

Conquest's attraction for lenders is that the entire process is simplified. When the lender issues instructions it is provided with a one-sheet questionnaire helping to identify which questions to ask and the objective of the hearing.

“The standardised report form is meant to stop hearings just going on and on,” explains Davies. “The lender is asked: 'What do you need to ask, what do you need to know?' It is then a lot easier for the agent to fulfil the client's requirements.”

At the end of the process, the lender receives a single bill. Each quarter, Conquest sends a statistical breakdown of the cases it has handled on the lender's behalf, setting out which cases succeeded and which failed, with reasons given for those that failed.

Conquest operates on a system similar to a franchise, breaking the UK down by postcode and accepting no more than two members from each area. Members are then marketed by region and by a system of specialist panels. It costs £800 to join and there is a quarterly subscription of £600.

“We receive a fair amount of agency instructions through Conquest that we wouldn't otherwise get,” says Stephen Round, a partner at member firm Tanfields in Dudley, near Birmingham. “And it pays at a rate that is profitable. There is also a fair amount by way of cross-referencing in the network.”

LawGroup also works on a basis of geographical exclusivity, although each catchment area is larger and reserved for a single member. The network attracts larger regional firms with an average of around 10 partners. Emphasis is put on quality. Every firm is reviewed each year, a process which is handled by senior lawyers with management qualifications.

“Agency is normally bottom of the pile,” says LawGroup spokesman Aewyn Lewis. “You look them up, send off the papers and cross your fingers. But our membership is closely vetted. If members say they do agency work we want to know in what categories. That way you know you have someone of assured quality with genuine experience in the area of law you're dealing in.”

Although LawGroup's main purpose is to provide expertise and initiatives in training, marketing, finance and other areas of practice management, facilitating agency work is becoming increasingly important.

“Members are using each other more and more,” says Lewis. “We have a long-term objective of finding ways to tap into the group's collective expertise, enabling members to extend their range of services.”

“There is no obligation to instruct LawGroup firms,” says Robin Macpherson, a partner at Robson McLean in Edinburgh. “But we perceive advantages in doing so given the rigours laid down by LawGroup, such as making costs clear to the client right from the start. We know we're dealing with people on the same wavelength as ourselves.”

Mike Jones, an assistant at Wolferstans in Plymouth who manages the practice's agency work, adds: “Mostly I use people I've come to know, usually through litigation. But where we don't know anyone, the LawGroup directory will be the first port of call.”

The Law South network operates only in the south east of England and has 10 members. As with LawGroup, the primary aim is management services, with agency work an added bonus. “We provide our members with notification of who to contact within each firm in respect of agency work,” says director Christina Myers.

Although the group does not operate a specific quality procedure, most members have ISO9001 accreditation. “It works both ways,” says David Higham, a partner at member firm Blake Lapthorn in Guildford. “It provides a source of agency instructions. But it also means that throughout the south east we have people who can do agency work for us. It is much better to instruct someone you know than bang it off and hope for the best.”