May the sole practitioner survive
15 September 1998
Monty Martin is convinced legal aid and conveyancing changes will decimate the high street, but he says there is a future for those lawyers willing to adapt.
Lymbury’s out. My colleague and fellow sole practitioner John Lymbury is selling his well-known Nottingham PI practice as featured in The Lawyer recently. John and I have discussed the momentous decision several times.
There are some pretty terrifying changes taking place which affect the way sole practitioners work and the shape of the profession as a whole. No practice will survive unless it faces, honestly, the great challenges and problems of today.
General practices, sole practitioners or partnerships will soon be much thinner on the ground. I am certain that legal aid franchising and contracting, panels and bulk conveyancing will decimate the High Street. Comply or get out, that is the message such practitioners should have heard loud and clear some years ago.
There is room for altruism regarding access to the law. But at what price if the lawyer cannot put a meal on the table. Availability of justice is important but survival for us and our families must have priority.
The Law Society’s Sole Practitioners Group has 4,800 members and receives financial help from the society. President Michael Mathews, when interviewed for the group magazine, Solo, said: “I would like to debunk the myth here and now that the Law Society is less interested in sole practitioners.” Sole practitioners should be aware that we do have a voice that is heard. Members should play an active and rewarding role in the group. If there is no local branch, form one and share problems and successes in fellowship.
This is what I believe is needed for the high street. Legal aiders should get franchised and make sure they are able to contract if necessary or pack up legal aid now. Common lawyers should join forces with colleagues for accounting procedures and service delivery. If your volume of specific work is not enough, join up with someone else in the field. Lawyers should specialise, move if necessary and fully exploit IT.
The continuing trend for new practices to be sole practitioners shows it remains attractive, perhaps because you can do your own thing, within reason. Immediate client contact, if you trade alone, is unsurpassed and you can work with the minimum of overheads without needing a vast front office.
Sole practitioners are often major players. We have recently seen Beatrice McCauley-Slowe fighting the immigration corner of Janmani Lumurm. Michael Dalton is challenging the Law Society’s monopoly over indemnity insurance while Henry Milner, now acting for Kenneth Noye, has defended in many high-profile trials. There are also some very positive opportunities for sole practitioners including:
niche non-legal aid practices, for example in tax or media business;
high volume or major white-collar crime;
probate and wills from home using IT;
lecturing on circuit and locally;
contracting for major firms;
advising in Europe and abroad;
joining a solicitors’ chambers.
If you have better ideas and burning ambition, you should do okay. Do not only comply with regulation but exploit it. Anticipate change. If SIF slaughters you, do work that does not.
It has been suggested that of the 4,800 sole practitioners now practising, 2,500 will soon go. I hope you will not be one.
Monty Martin has been a sole practitioner, police prosecutor and senior partner. He now has a back-to-back consumer credit practice and is an executive member of the SPG.