Friday, December 07, 2012

Friday View: The way forward?


As most of the serious items in this blog are essentially just news, I thought I would start a new series of posts in which I pass some comment upon those things that are happening in the world of family law. I have decided to call the series 'Friday View', on the basis that the posts will be written on Fridays and that the thing or things I will comment upon are from the previous week, although whether I shall write a post every Friday, we shall see...

To kick the series off, I am actually going to discuss something that has already attracted comment or, perhaps more accurately, I am going to comment upon the comment.

As I reported here, last week the Government launched a web app aimed at helping separating parents. To explain the need for such an app (and perhaps to justify the £300,000 cost), the launch was accompanied by the results of a YouGov poll commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions, which revealed "that more than half of parents (52%) find it hard to access help and support they need when they separate".

The poll was picked up yesterday by Catherine Baksi, in a blog post she wrote for the Law Society Gazette. She pointed out that:
"Of the 2,505 participants, 39% said they did not access any professional support after the split. Of those, 25% said it was because they couldn't find the right help or felt embarrassed."
Ms Baksi suggests that this "indicates a large unmet need among the public, which lawyers are [sic] could be capitalising on". She goes on to back up her suggestion that family lawyers are losing business by referring to the Financial Benchmarking Survey of the Law Society’s Law Management Section, which she says indicates that the volume of family law work done by the profession has not been increasing, "in sharp contrast to other areas of work like conveyancing and corporate".

Now, I remember being somewhat surprised when I read last week that the YouGov poll had found that an apparently large number of participants (in fact, only about 10%) did not access any professional support "because they couldn't find the right help or felt embarrassed". I suppose I can understand the embarrassment part, but it seemed extraordinary to me that some 'couldn't find the right help'. Surely, virtually everyone knows that solicitors deal with family matters, and are quite capable of going to Yell.com to find one that does? What more can family lawyers do?

Anyhow, turning to the survey (the direction of our lives these days seems to be governed by polls and surveys), this actually relates to fee income, rather than volume of work. My reading is that it indicates a small decline in family fee income this quarter (April - June 2012) as against the previous quarter, and about the same fee income this quarter as against the same quarter last year. Given the economic climate, I think a small decrease is entirely to be expected, and not necessarily indicative of a failure to capture business. As for suggesting that the performance of family lawyers compares unfavourably with conveyancers, their increase in fee income could simply be due to a small upturn in the housing market, something quite beyond their control.

Now, I'm not for one moment being complacent, but I'm also sure that neither are most family lawyers. They will be working as hard as ever to capture new business, despite the constraint of diminishing advertising budgets. Many of them will also soon have to face the challenge of losing most of their legal aid work, although that perhaps will also bring some new opportunities.

Notwithstanding all of the above, I'm not saying that Ms Baksi's post is without merit. Times are undoubtedly tough for many family lawyers. Ms Baksi suggests that the way forward is to be big, either as part of a national organisation such as Co-operative Legal Services, or to be part of a referral and support network such as Connect2Law. She may be right.

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