In this series on referral companies, I have so far looked at Quality Solicitors, a very new player run by a barrister for solicitors, and Contact Law, a non-solicitor run organisation which started in 2005.

LawNet is very different from both of these. Started in 1989 by Simon Maddox, a visionary solicitor in Birmingham, it was formed as a way for firms to collaborate on issues such as training and the sharing of knowledge. LawNet started initially with eight firms, five of whom are still there today. The group then grew fairly rapidly and there are now some 65 member firms (59 in England and Wales). LawNet firms generally are very loyal to the brand: 80 per cent of them have been members for over five years. There are three main areas where it helps its members:

Group purchasing powers. In particular, the group negotiates professional indemnity insurance terms for the group as a whole, which gives members firms security and very reasonable rates. In fact LawNet members did not have any worries about PI this year, as this is the second of a two year deal which was negotiated for them. The placing at £1.2 billion is the largest in the legal sector, which is very attractive to brokers and insurers alike.

Quality assurance. LawNet has its own ISO 9001/2008 Quality Standard which is nationally (and internationally) recognised. Firms are inspected independently every six months, and it is a requirement of all firms that they are accredited to this standard within two years of joining.

Learning, shared knowledge and resources. LawNet is accredited for CPD, provides training for all its firms, and holds an annual conference. They also have a number of specialist panels and refer work to each other, to use their group resources to the best advantage. For example there are some 8-9 firms who specialise in medical negligence, and they receive referrals from other LawNet firms.

LawNet is owned by its members and any profits are either ploughed back into developing and providing services, or redistributed. There are hefty membership fees paid monthly, from £900 per month, depending on firm size, but most find that these are easily offset by the savings that they can make from the group services. One firm is reported to have saved some £35,000 on PI insurance premiums alone upon joining!

Members’ opinions

What do the members firms say about it? Andrew & Co LLP, a Lincolnshire firm, joined in 1989 as they felt that they needed to broaden their horizons. LawNet has been very worthwhile for them. Phillip Hoskins, partner, suggested the following additional benefits of membership:

  • Networking. Relationships with people in management at other LawNet firms and with fee earners have proved invaluable. Two way advice is something which is really quite unique.
  • Bulk purchasing. LawNet gives mid market firms the opportunity to use products such as Westlaw and Lawtel, which are normally beyond the reach of most mid market firms.
  • CMS Cameron McKenna. Our relationship with a leading City firm brings significant benefits to corporate/commercial lawyers within the group.

The relationship with CMS Cameron McKenna is under an arrangement called LawTeam. This provides LawNet members and their clients access to a number of benefits including free telephone advice, corporate transactional support, tender support, transactional referral service and reduced City rates on larger transactions. It is governed by the LawTeam Protocol which includes a non-poaching condition. It is of great value to and is used regularly by many LawNet firms.

Phillip Hoskins went on to say “I do not see that there are any disadvantages to membership of LawNet as such. The professional indemnity insurance scheme means that membership in most cases is self funding.”

Another member is Keston Cunningham John in Norfolk. Mary Porch, Marketing Manager of Kester Cunningham John, commented on Contact Law in my last article. How does she view the firm’s membership of the LawNet group?

“LawNet membership works for different firms in different ways. Many were initially attracted to the group in the 1990s on the back of professional indemnity insurance savings but now see substantial benefit from the courses, workshops and conferences offered and especially from the networking opportunities they provide.

The knowledge sharing between firms is generally good, whether you use your own network of contacts built up within the group or avail yourself of the ”˜round robin’ e-mail system for getting answers to specific questions. Items such as regular draft press releases are a useful addition.”

Current developments

For a long time the benefits of LawNet have mainly been “internal” ones, such as shared resources, collaboration and bulk purchasing. It is only fairly recently that they have decided to use the group for more “external” relations. Some 18 months ago (and this was before Quality Solicitors burst into the limelight) it was decided to do more on the group marketing front, and the group’s marketing website LawNetSolicitors.co.uk was born.

Unlike other referral sites, if the user does a search on a particular legal topic and geographic area, they are given full details of the member firms satisfying the criteria; in other words, the user makes the choice of firm rather than having it “allocated” to them. The idea with the website was to do more than just provide a referral service, but also to give information which allows readers to do a bit of research on their own, on their problem, and help them find the appropriate firm for the particular problem that they have.

The website is still rather new, having had a “soft launch” in July 2009. They do not have a lot of money to throw at it (members do not pay any referral fees) so they are now working at improving their search engine optimisation and trying to grow organically. However, several member firms have already received enquiries and work from the site.

What do the members think of the new initiative? “Strengthening identity, and creating a stronger brand, with the greater credibility this gives all members of the group” are considered by Phillip Hoskins to be particularly important aspects. “The website is part of the long term development of the support which the group can give to individual member firms.”

Mary Porch is more cautious: “Like any organisation, LawNet continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of its members. If it is able to add ”˜work generation’ to the list of benefits this will be a bonus but the new web initiative is entering an already- crowded market place so it is very much wait and see”.

As to the future, the group is very stable and is well placed to face out whatever horrors the post Legal Services Act regime may throw at the profession. The LawNetSolicitors.co.uk website is an important part of the mix, and the group is actively looking for new firms to allow them to have a more comprehensive cover. Target firms are those with between about 6 and 30 partners (the model does not suit very large firms) in Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham and the west country, in particular areas such as Torquay, Exeter, and Taunton.

Said John Thomas, Chief Executive of LawNet: “Our model has stood the test of time and we have a very loyal membership, who long ago saw the benefit of collaboration and being part of something bigger. We are well placed to meet the challenges ahead and make the most of being “Stronger Together”.

With thanks to John Thomas, Mary Porch and Phillip Hoskins.

Tessa is a solicitor and runs the online legal information service Landlord-Law. She also writes a blog about solicitors on the internet at solicitorsonlineblog.com.

Email tessa@landlordlaw.co.uk.

Note. After writing three reviews in our series on referral companies, Tessa will take a break and the next review will be written by Justin Patten of Human Law Mediation. If you have suggestions for future reviews, please contact Delia at delia@venables.co.uk.

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