Interview with Brian McMillan, Director General of The Society of Will Writers

The Society of Will Writers has just released a video to encourage more people, from all backgrounds, to join the profession. Brian McMillan, Director General of the society, talked to Today’s Wills and Probate about why will writing is such a rewarding role.

What inspired the video Brian?

"We as a society are always looking for new members and we wanted to get the word out about will writing to people who might not have considered it as a career before. Also we want to encourage will writers who aren’t currently members of the society to join. Will writing is still a self-regulated profession with no government or statutory intervention so if we can persuade more will writers to become members of the society it can only be a good thing. And, of course, that’s great for the consumer too as it means more will writers will be part of a professional body that ensures their CPD and professional indemnity insurance is up to date and offers on-going training and technical support throughout their careers."

How have you been publicising it?

"We’ve been promoting it through social media — Twitter and Facebook — which members are increasingly looking to as the way forward. Tom Stansfield has joined us to help push that side of things and his skills are invaluable. He ran a short social media course at the start of January and I wasn’t sure there would be much take-up, so early in the year and in mid-winter, but it sold out. We have now run our second and have planned another four throughout the year.

"We will be producing more videos over the coming months as part and parcel of our commitment to the Legal Services Board that, as well as trying to improve self-regulation, we’ll focus on educating consumers as to what wills are.

"And as well as looking at videos, we’ve also invested in new software to improve training and education of our members."

What sort of people are you looking to attract to the profession?

"People who are middle-aged and older make the best will writers — some elderly and vulnerable clients find it hard to relate to 21-year-old university graduates and would prefer someone seemingly more experienced. This is why it would seem that more mature people do well in the profession.

"Will writing is perfect for people who have taken early retirement and are seeking additional income or women who have give up work to have kids and are now looking for something that they can fit around their family. It’s traditionally an evening and weekend occupation — people visit clients when they’re at home – so it can merge well into someone’s life.

"We’ve partnered with the Ministry of Defence, for example, to promote will writing as a career to people leaving the army. A lot of military personnel spend their time as clerks and that’s a good fit with will writing, with the focus on detail and accuracy.

"Already this year we’ve seen a surge in the number of financial advisers showing an interest in will writing. This is an exciting time all round, really. The economy is improving so if we can do our bit to create job opportunities and show people what they can get out of a career in will writing that’s brilliant."

How long have you been Director General of the society and why do you think will writing is a rewarding career?

"I have been director general for 19 years this June — I was one of the founder members of the society when it was set up in 1994. I’ve been a will writer; I still draft wills today to keep my hand in and I give talks and lectures. I loved will writing from the day I was introduced to it and I really enjoy working with the society’s members and consumers.

"This is a serious profession and we charge a serious amount of money — that’s one thing I want to get across. But it’s a people profession too — it’s about giving our clients time rather than just rushing in and out in the knowledge of picking up a hefty cheque.

"On top of that, it’s a fascinating area to be in — and it’s growing. People are much more aware of the need to have a will — and a good will at that — these days. They are starting to understand that having a professional work on a will with you shows those you loved that you cared enough to plan properly."

How many members does the society have at the moment?

"We have 600 companies registered with us as full members and there are probably 1500-2000 consultants working for those companies who are affiliated to the society."

And how many will writers do you believe there are in the UK who aren’t members?

"We don’t really know and that’s the problem. With a self-regulated profession there’s no register or record of everybody who is practising. And of course will writing crosses many boundaries — there are solicitors, financial advisers, mortgage brokers, dedicated will writers and banks all writing wills. With lots of those practitioners clients do have recourse if things go wrong — the Law Society deals with issues with solicitors, for example — but there are probably another 2,000 will writers out there who aren’t answerable to anyone and that’s quite frightening.

"The law doesn’t require will writers to have any training whatsoever — someone could buy a cheap bit of software and set themselves up as a will writer in an afternoon. Potentially they’re unqualified, out of touch with changes in legislation and don’t carry professional indemnity insurance, meaning the client has nowhere to go if they get it wrong.

"In 2013 we thought we were — at last — going to have some form of regulation but then the Lord Chancellor said he didn’t see any particular reason why will writing had to be regulated because wills weren’t causing that many problems.

"In a sense that’s true — at our best estimate, 200,000 wills are written by our members annually and in 2014 we only had 47 complaints against society members. And we make it very easy to complain, with on-line forms on our website. But what’s worrying is that there’s no way for clients to lodge complaints against will writers who aren’t members of the society. They simply have to write it off as a bad experience.

"Recently, however, Chris Grayling said he wanted to see better self-regulation for will writers and the legal ombudsman has been talking about introducing a voluntary scheme whereby will writing could come under its umbrella — that would be allowed under the 2007 Legal Services Act. And it would make such a difference because it would mean people would be able to complain and seek financial recompense when errors are made.

"We’re very keen to bring this in and we’ve had four meetings with the Legal Ombudsman over the past two years but everybody is dragging their heels and we’re still two years away from getting anywhere with it. And the consumer is losing out because of all this.

"It’s disappointing because the society has made its position clear — provided it’s acceptable, we will sign up to a voluntary scheme and therefore our members will be automatically enrolled in that scheme too, giving clients a safety net."

What’s your view on licensing will writing?

"We have spoken to the Legal Services Board time and again, asking: ‘Why won’t you consider bringing in licensing?’

"It would be relatively straightforward as the two main bodies — the Society of Will Writers and the Institute of Professional Will Writers — have the infrastructure to easily license their members and ensure they have the correct CPD and PII.

"If it was compulsory that anybody who writes a will for gain has to be licensed we’d know how many people out there are actually writing wills and be able to judge the quality of their work — and to sanction them if it was below par.

"Such a scheme already exists in Scotland — it’s had royal assent to make it an illegal act to write a will unless you’re licensed. We spent thousands of pounds and hundreds of man hours going backwards and forwards to Scotland, talking to the Scottish Executive about this, but, even though it’s all ready to go and has been green-lighted, nothing, thus far, has happened."

What does the future hold for the Society of Will Writers?

"This is a good time — there’s lots going on. We’ve always had the College of Will Writers but in the past we’ve rented hotels for lectures. So, last January we took on our own college building, behind our current main office in Lincoln, and we’ve now developed a range of courses that we host in-house. That’s very exciting.

"We hold a five-day course every month designed to give the individual joining the profession all the information needed to advise clients on every aspect of estate planning. We offer a whole range of one-day courses too — on everything from tax and trust to social media and marketing. And all of these courses are selling out.

"On top of that, we are developing a new distance learning course to complement the residential courses. So it’s all very busy and exciting."

The society turns 21 this year. Are you having a big celebration for coming of age?

"I think we deserve one — we started from a membership basis of zero and we’ve grown from that to be the largest organisation in this field. We have our conference in October and I think we should have some sort of celebration then — definitely."

Watch the Society of Will Writers video on the ‘Become a Member’ page on the SWW website or on the society’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/societyofwillwriters.

Today's Wills and Probate