Monday, 5 March 2012

Fee earners

I've been working for a firm of solicitors for the last six and a half years. I'm amazed to realise that this is possibly the longest I've worked for one firm. Mind you, in that time I've had time off work to go on tour with various bands, up to a month or six weeks at a time, and I was also off sick having treatment for leukaemia for over a year. So it's not six years at all.

I'm now working part time in an admin role. It's a small office with just a handful of staff. Broadly speaking the staff can be divided into fee earners and support staff. Our business is selling advice. Buying a house, getting a divorce, making a will, sorting out a deceased loved one's estate all require specialist knowledge that the ordinary individual would not know or understand. We provide a service to the public where we act for people using our knowledge and training and years of experience.
We charge for this. Sometimes we can quote a price for the work based on our experience of how long/complicated the case may be. Other times we cannot, but as we charge by the hour we can tell teh client the hourly rate and give a rough estimate/ball park figure. The customer/client is free to accept or reject our estimate. He is free to instruct whoever he/she likes. That's how the market works.

Paying more does not guarantee a better job. I read somewhere that retailers find the the best selling item is the second cheapest. The cheapest can't be any good the customer thinks, so plumps for the second cheapest. Some items, namely luxury cars, are stuffed full of gadgets that are there purely to justify the outrageous price tag. Why can't I buy a car with wind up windows any more? Whay can't I buy a car without a radio? Or a heater? Thirty/forty years ago cars were very basic and consequently cheaper.

Where was I?
Our firm's fee earners are supported by the admin staff. Put bluntly, they earn the money while we cost money. My job is to enable the fee earners to earn money (and thereby pay my wages). Some costs are inevitable. Premises, heating, lighting. Our computer system is getting old but it works. Our accounts system is basic but it does the job. Our telephone system is about ten years old but it works. We don't spend money unwisely. Our clients very rarely comment about the decor. One woman did once, but soon shut up when I said that we'd have to increase our fees to decorate the building to her satisfaction. Clients keep returning. They don't have to. There are plenty of firms out there who could do a similar job, some can do it cheaper. But our clients keep coming back..why?

They get good service. We remember their names. I had a client come through the door to say their daughter wanted us to act in a house sale and purchase. When they mentioned the name I remembered their daughter's name and where she lived. They were surprised I could remember but we do. It's because we see our clients in person. We get to know them. Sometimes we're a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes we lose. One client was frustrated at the apparent lack of progress and took his file elsewhere. A few months later he called in to apologise. The new solicitor was having the same problems as we had. Perhaps his case was unwinnable?

Throughout all this I'm aware that I don't earn the fees. I can help make the environment better for the fee earner. I can be helpful and courteous towards the clients. I can spend the firms' money wisely.

Now we come to the bigger picture. The government doesn't earn the money that keeps the country solvent. Businesses do. Individuals do. Fee earners do. They pay the taxes that the government spends.
The excellent Tom Paine blog had this post a few months ago:

I urge you to read it, especially the comments

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