As a one man band in the Far North of Scotland, I run a fairly standard Scottish county town solicitors office. Over the years, with areas of law becoming increasingly complicated and with the risks involved in being anything but well versed in what you practice, my practice has condensed down to estate agency and conveyancing, executries, wills and powers of attorney. I no longer offer employment law, agricultural law or accident claims which used to provide a reasonable income.
In this I am not alone and there will be a lot of solicitors out there who are casting around for alternatives. One can become a specialist and, indeed, I think that would have been the way that I might have gone, but as the whole County of Caithness, in which I practice, has a total population of about 26,000 people and is 100 miles from the nearest city (Inverness), there is clearly limited scope for that!
So, you want to increase your income, but there is a limit. You can take over your opposition and I have done that. It has worked but I continue to worry that it will not be enough.
Then there’s the internet. I’ve always been interested in it and was an early adopter. My website georgesons.co.uk was the second solicitor’s website in Scotland and it paid primarily because most Scottish solicitors are also estate agents and so I had something specific to sell. People kept coming back.
I was also an early adopter of programming and I had programmed the office computers to automate many tasks. About 10 years ago, however, I had a flash of inspiration and decided that was not beyond me to automate the making of wills online.
I did a search on the internet and found only one other website offering instant wills (in England) and so I took the plunge.
I tried to do it myself and failed. I was, however, lucky to find a really great programmer who took what I had started and finished it. The fact that I could logically set out the decision tree for him really helped.
I launched Scotwills (now MyScottishWill.co.uk) in 2000 and was very lucky that the BBC in Scotland gave me a great deal of coverage.
I’ve recently, for marketing purposes, grouped them together under the MyScottishLaw label and the there is a hub/portal website at MyScottishLaw.co.uk.
Is it/was it worth it? I think the answer is, not yet. 10 years experience of selling online legal services has given me some insight into the issue.
There is one major problem and it is very serious. Marketing in any traditional way, such as adverts and print media, on the radio and TV, makes no sense. It is too costly with too little return and will never work (in the small Scottish market, anyway). The reason is that with an online legal service the customer makes, say, a will, pays for it, signs it, puts it away and (here’s the problem) tells no one. Furthermore, he doesn’t go back for more. It’s a one-hit wonder with that client. I have discovered that customers are very shy about talking about their use of the law.
As an early adopter, perhaps I should have recognised this and, had I been primarily motivated by money, gone in for a gambling website as there is a significant difference. With such websites, the client finds one he or she likes and keeps coming back and back for more and more.
There is also the problem that despite the bad press and the high cost, actually, most people want to see and speak to a solicitor when they are dealing with important issues in their lives. That’s a high hurdle.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that without my “day job”, I would not have been able to invest so much money into the websites. It is expensive both in money and time. If you have a day job, you need to spend most of your time on that. Neglecting your core market is a bad idea. As a sole trader, I also need to spend time running the business. Thus, I have not been able to learn new programming languages and have had to buy in help. Despite this, the websites are a significant drain on my time and energy.
It also helps that I took an Open University course in small business management, the major core of which was marketing. Without that, I don’t think I would have found any success at all.
So why am I still doing it? Fundamentally, because I think that if I can crack the marketing issue, it will come into its own and, anyway, with the way things are in the economy just now, one needs a plan B! The world does not owe you a living. I have an adage which is that the “lucky” man is the one whose eyes are always searching the pavement for the dropped £10 note. In the legal world this means that if you are not looking for new business, you won’t find it.
I also have to confess that it is also somewhat selfish as I love learning new “stuff” and I love the buzz! Life in the office can be very, very dull.
I imagine most of the people who will read this are in England. Scotland has its own distinctive legal market and I am lucky in the sense that it is a niche and I am a “big” player in it. Unfortunately, it’s a fairly small market compared to England where there are 10 times more people than in Scotland. On the upside this means that in England there is more opportunity to make a large amount of money but the downside is that there are many more players competing.
Putting your services online is not for the fainthearted. You really need to know what you are doing and, if you are not going to write the code yourself, you need to be very specific as to exactly what it is that you want from your programmer. You need to have analysed exactly what the decision-making process is going to be and how that is going to produce words on the page.
If you do not do this, you will not get a fixed price or you will find that the stuff you didn’t realise you needed will cost you a lot of money as, by that time, you are committed to that programmer!
As Donald Rumsfeld said: “there are also unknown unknowns – they are things we do not know we don’t know.” If you have never written a program, that’s a tough call.
My current buzz is to learn social networking. I’m enjoying it – it’s exhausting but worth it because I need to crack the marketing nut.
And that’s my advice to you. Don’t even think about going online until you have worked out your marketing angle. The technical difficulties are significant but that is about time and money. A website that you do not market properly will just fester and cost you money.
Bruce de Wert is the Principal of Georgesons.