Contact Law are big players in the solicitors referral field. The company was started in 2005 by James Vintin and Dan Watkins as they felt that there was an opening for a service to help members of the public find a suitable solicitor. They were also interested in developing services to help solicitors deal with the deregulation of legal services, to be brought about by the Legal Services Act.

The Contact Law service works by potential clients first contacting them. This will either be via their website (they are very highly placed by Google for many law-related search words) or via one of their partnerships, for example with big brand names such as the Daily Telegraph.

The Contact Law case handlers will then talk to the client to find out more about their case. If they do not appear to be suitable for referral (for example if they have no budget and the case is not one suitable for no win no fee) they will normally be referred to another organisation, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau. If the case appears to be a good one, it will be referred to one of the Contact Law member firms. All member firms are obliged by their service agreement to contact the client within four hours. After that it is a matter for the firm how they deal with the case.

What experience have member firms had? Three people I spoke to, Colin Carr, business manager of Rollingsons Solicitors, Duncan McNair, partner with Child and Child, and Peter Todd, partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, all confirmed that their firms are very satisfied with the service and that they would be staying with the company long term.

Rollingsons have been with Contact Law almost from the beginning. They have been very pleased with the quality of the work referred to them and in particular have received good referrals for family and employment law.

Child and Child joined more recently, some 12 months ago. Duncan McNair told me that his firm chose Contact Law because “there are many in the field but Contact Law stood out to me from my enquiries”. Referrals are currently about 10 per month and he is happy with this, although not all turn into cases. But overall he is extremely pleased.

Hodge Jones & Allen joined about 18 months ago, attracted by the method of charging. Peter Todd explained:

“The basic charging model is that they charge 15 per cent of fees billed. This means that you can receive referrals from them without any cost. If a referral does not proceed, then there is no charge. If, however, it goes on to generate fees, there is a percentage fee. This cannot apply to personal injury work, as it would otherwise be an unenforceable contingency agreement. There are advantages for firms in cash flow in this arrangement and also that the cost incurred is directly related to the revenue generated for the firm.”

So far as the work referred is concerned he says, “Overall, I would say the experience has been good. Although the quality of referrals can be variable, this is always the case in any form of marketing and often there are some really good referrals, albeit mixed in with some poor ones. At least the poor ones only involve your time in sorting them out.” He estimates that they receive in the region of 30 referrals a month.

How do firms become Contact Law panel members? Most firms apply, and selection is based on signs of quality within the firms. Lexcel or some other accreditation is generally helpful, but not necessarily essential. However, probably the most important part of the assessment takes place after work has been referred, as there is a rigorous program of customer feedback. James Vintin explained:

“We will contact clients at certain pre-set intervals, for example shortly after referral, when the work is underway, and after completion of the work. The responses are fed back into our software, which will help inform our caseworkers when referring work. Ultimately the amount of work we will send a firm will depend very much on client feedback.”

The firms mentioned above are all based in London. What about firms in more rural areas? Kester Cunningham John, an East Anglian firm, has had a different experience. They joined Contact Law in 2007, but left 18 months later in spring 2009 after reaching the conclusion that that what had seemed a good idea in principle was not working in the East Anglian marketplace. Marketing manager Mary Porch explains:

“In market towns there is a sense of community and people talk to each other. So, in reality, most people who need legal advice will either have used a local firm before, or have a friend, work colleague or family member who has. The majority of those who are ready to pay for advice will be faced with a choice between several local or regional firms whose names they know. So, by default, the majority of people coming the Contact Law route are doing so because they are looking for a cheap solution. The time spent following up the dead-end leads was too great to make it worth carrying on with the scheme in search of an occasional gem. It is almost certainly a business concept which works much better in larger more anonymous cities, and for firms who are able to offer public funding for a wide range of their services.”

For those firms in “anonymous cities”, however, the Contact Law service is likely to prove very beneficial. Peter Todd:

“Whilst solicitors may regret a “middle man” coming between them and the consumer, on the other hand solicitors are not necessarily skilled at marketing. I see no particular reason why firms cannot outsource their marketing costs to agencies such as Contact Law. Contact Law do provide value to the consumer in that they are able to put the consumer in touch with a solicitor who has the expertise to handle their case and moreover is actually willing and keen to do that sort of case. This can save a consumer a lot of hard work in shopping around. There is also nothing to prevent solicitors from increasing their hourly rates by 15 per cent to cover the costs, so that effectively the work funds itself.”

This is an interesting thought!

Contact Law were recently acquired by Thomson Reuters, which has allowed them far greater resources, in particular for marketing. They are eager to expand their service and their future plans are very exciting.

James Vintin says:

“We are now talking to some big brand names, such as supermarkets and similar organisations. These companies want to provide a legal service, but will not generally want to employ a team of lawyers to do the case work themselves. We can provide a white label service which they can outsource to, with service level agreements with quality solicitors firms to do the work. This makes our service very attractive to these big brand names. The brand names will earn by taking a share in our referral fee, but the 15 per cent we charge the solicitors will not be changed. In this way we can make Tesco Law work for our member firms, as legal work for clients acquired by big brand companies under their legal service will actually still be done by regular solicitors firms.”

In conclusion, whether Contact Law will work for your firm will depend to a large extent on the sort of firm you have and where you are based. For city firms, Contact Law looks like an excellent service, and one which may (for their member firms) lessen, if not banish altogether, the spectre of Tesco Law which hovers over us all. However clearly the service does not work for everyone, and perhaps some firms in the smaller market towns may be better off relying more on their local reputation and contacts.

With thanks to James Vintin, Colin Carr, Duncan McNair, Peter Todd and Mary Porch.

Tessa Shepperson is a solicitor in Norwich and runs the online legal information service landlordlaw.co.uk. She also writes a blog about solicitors on the internet at solicitorsonlineblog.com.

Email tessa@landlordlaw.co.uk.

Note. The use of the term “Tesco Law” in this article refers to the concept of large organisations providing legal services and is not intended to refer to any actual service run by Tesco itself. Indeed, Tesco is not providing legal services in this way at the moment and the original site for those services, www.tescolegalstore.com now defaults to the main Tesco web site.

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