Square Mile

The world did not end in August as some Nostradamus interpreters would have had us believe, but some predictions do come to pass given time.

I recently unearthed an article written many years ago which stated confidently that it would not be long before the most important person in a law firm was its "estimator".

It argued that if open competition between solicitors was to be encouraged (it was written a long time ago), clients would not be prepared to be left in the dark on how much they were likely to pay where no pre-existing mandatory scale charge applied.

Out should go tired references to lengths of string, and instead solicitors should estimate the likely cost of a variety of work by drawing on past experiences. Quite right too.

It has taken a long time for this vision to take real shape.

But years of operating in an open competitive market, heightened consumer pressure and attempts to introduce genuine client care principles are beginning to produce results.

There is now widespread use of informative engagement letters and a greater recognition of the need to clarify the basis on which clients can expect to be charged.

And embracing the "estimator" concept wholeheartedly allows firms to do far more. Properly analysing a range of previous cases should make it possible to produce a detailed breakdown of the likely constituent elements of most new jobs – non-contentious and contentious alike.

Lawyers have, perhaps, been too ready in the past to interpret clients' insistence on certainty when it comes to costs as a one-sided exercise in risk allocation.

But try looking at it from the clients' point of view.

They have employed a lawyer because of their expertise in the area of work. Why should that not extend to being able to say what the job is likely to cost?

Clients, after all, operate in a culture where survival depends on being able to deliver a project to a price and quite reasonably expect the same from their suppliers.

Better still, this can represent a real opportunity for lawyers. Firms should aim to encourage best practice and uniformity of approach by channelling estimates through an internal review procedure conducted by a small group with a particular aptitude for specifying and valuing work.

This, coupled with good communication with the client at all stages, benefits clients and lawyers alike.

Clients dislike uncertainty about cost far more than the cost itself. Give them a clear understanding of what they are likely to be charged and this reassures them that they are in control of the billing process and not its victim.

Underpin this with quality of service and the client relationship can only go from strength to strength.

If the author of that old article is still out there, he may be wondering why it has taken lawyers so long to get it right.