Survival of the fittest

Agencies have to adapt to succeed in a competitive market, says Fred Mason. Fred Mason co-ordinates the agency department of Charles Russell, Cheltenham.

The improvement in the economy is good news for the legal profession as a whole, but it has cast a shadow over agency work.

Before the economic upturn, agency practitioners enjoyed a golden period in which mortgage repossession instructions arrived by the sackful. Although these matters were distressing on a personal level, they produced a stream of straightforward work for lawyers.

But repossessions have declined steeply in recent years. The number of properties repossessed by mortgage lenders in the second half of 1996 was 18,460, more than 50 per cent down on the peak figure of 38,930 in the second half of 1991. The trend has continued in the first half of 1997.

Agency departments now have to compete for a reduced volume of instructions from a more discriminating and demanding clientele. Existing clients have to be retained in the face of fierce competition and new clients have to be attracted.

Firms which found it easy to attract mortgage repossession work will find the going is getting harder. Only those practices which treat agency work as important will prosper. Those who regard it merely as a way of training or amusing junior staff will lose money and, ultimately, the work.

The key to remaining competitive is providing a high-quality service at a reasonable cost. Successful agency departments constantly look at ways of improving their service. The speed of response is crucial. Agents must be able to accept instructions at short notice and report to the client quickly.

Where an agency department appears regularly at a range of local courts, its members will be familiar with those courts, their practices, the staff and the judiciary. This will assist the agent in advising the client in preparation for the hearing and in the presentation of the case.

A large agency department will have a broad range of lawyers available to undertake work. This means that particular agency instructions can be matched with the appropriately experienced lawyer and the work can then be undertaken at a cost-effective rate.

For example, it will be appropriate for a legal executive to attend a straightforward bankruptcy hearing, while an experienced partner will be required to oversee the execution of an Anton Piller order.

A large agency department will also be able to accept urgent instructions more readily. In addition, a sufficient volume of agency instructions will ensure that work can be undertaken at a competitive cost. If the agent has to attend a number of hearings at the same court, his travel time can be discounted. If he is on familiar legal ground, research time will be cut and the costs further reduced.

Agency departments can no longer rely on a steady flow of routine low-value instructions. Agency work is now more competitive than for many years. It remains profitable for specialist departments and those who can adapt to changing economic circumstances. But for those who cannot adapt, the future may be short.