Maximise client retention with cross-departmental referrals

Making effective referrals between property and private client departments is a business process that should be utilised to prolong client retention. Tom Bridge, a renowned consultant within legal businesses, explains how this can be achieved.

Are some legal firms missing a trick by not making probate part of their offering?

“The Council of Licensed Conveyancers [CLC] can now license probate in addition to the SRA which is a further opportunity for some law firms. There are firms out there who see the sense of doing both conveyancing and probate together and have gone down that CLC regulation route. Unlike property, probate is always lucrative – it’s recession proof.

“It also makes sense to offer it given the technology available today. Most firms that provide conveyancing now use some form of case management system (CMS) – they might not be aware they do, in those terms, but they’ll be processing work on a systemised basis. If you look at Land Registry stats and the top 150 conveyancing practices, I’d say every one of them uses some form of CMS.

“Conversely most probate practitioners – and there are exceptions obviously but on the whole – don’t regard probate as a process in the same way as conveyancing is. But that’s wrong – the two fields aren’t dissimilar. There are certain key stages in probate, just as in conveyancing, even though the amount of lawyering involved in probate is greater. But it’s still not massive and it’s diminishing – there are websites out there where oaths can be generated to get a grant of probate, for example. And what these websites prove is that the actual obtaining of the grant is simply a process of collecting information – about assets, liabilities, details of any properties and executors – and putting it through a process and arriving at an oath which needs to be sworn by the executors and submitted to the probate registry. An element of lawyering is required if it’s a taxable estate but in the vast majority of cases which fall below the Inheritance Tax threshold it’s a relatively straightforward process, the majority of which can be undertaken by non-lawyers.

“And that’s where case management comes in – there are firms out there who use these systems for conveyancing but don’t think they need to for probate. That staggers me. They have these systems that make conveyancing so much more efficient yet they still carry out probate along the traditional lines – dictating letters to a colleague and having them typed up, for example. These lawyers don’t get that they could use the same case management systems as they do in conveyancing and make the process much more streamlined.

“What makes it even crazier is that most case management providers have a module in their technology that deals with probate – it’s easy to plug into. Take Redbrick for example – its software has a conveyancing module and a probate module so if a firm is using them for conveyancing someone only needs to pick the phone up or send an email and get plugged into the additional module. And the probate module will be almost exactly the same as the conveyancing – flow files with template docs and a case management system with diary entries taking the user through the process. So I think – I hope – that over the next few years’ probate will become more systemised. It makes financial and commercial sense.”

Do you believe that some firms aren’t cross pollinating between their probate and conveyancing divisions effectively?

“Yes, in many firms it’s almost a ‘them and us’ situation – there isn’t a relationship between the departments. My view is that if a legal firm has a strong probate department there should be a steady flow of referrals over to conveyancing. That’s on the basis that about 75% of estates under probate include a property – and in the majority of cases that’s a property which the beneficiaries want to sell to capitalise and extract the money. The people in probate should be using those properties as currency with the local estate agents to bring in work for their firm’s conveyancing department. Any estate agent that a conveyancer is trying to get referrals from will ask: ‘How many probate properties have you got on your books?’

“So probate practitioners should refer properties from estates to local agents and their conveyancing colleagues should automatically pick up work off the back of those referrals. It’s all about building a relationship. It may not be a massive income stream for the estate agent but most, even the smaller independents, understand that it is a worthwhile income stream. Some won’t even ask for a referral fee from the conveyancer if they are passed probate properties as those properties can be worth £1500 to them in agency commission.”

Do you believe Brexit will cause issues with the foreign property market?

“I don’t think Brexit is going to complicate that issue because a lot of foreign nationals own property in the UK. So no EU government is going to make it more difficult for British people to buy and own abroad as we’ll just respond in kind – tit for tat. And that’s pointless.

“The bigger issue in terms of foreign property is connected back to probate and that’s the aging population. Those people who bought properties in Spain, Portugal and France 20-25 years ago when they were in their 50s are now in their 70s and 80s and when they die these foreign villas and apartments will form part of their estates. Take the property boom in Spain 10-15 years ago – in another decade the people who took advantage of that will be coming to the end of their lives. And their wills won’t be straightforward because of their foreign investments.

“Obviously that makes probate much more complicated as it has to be dealt with it in the jurisdiction where the property is located and that means employing a local agent who understands the tax rules. Then the value of that asset has to be brought back to the UK and accounted for in probate here. So it’s not straightforward.”

Who do you use for international probate matters?

“If it’s in Europe, normally Oscar Abeti & Ian Coupland at BCP – they can deal with issues in Spain and Portugal straight away and have connections in France and Italy. If it’s in America or Jamaica, it’s a matter of finding someone through the likes of the Law Society. America is tricky, of course, as there are 52 states, all with different rules – some of the federal rules are the same but the state rules vary whether it’s Florida or Pennsylvania or Texas etc . It can get very complicated and the cost of doing the foreign element can dwarf the actual cost of the probate in the UK. So that’s a job for a specialist local lawyer.”

Tom Bridge is an experienced consultant, providing services to law firms and a range of other businesses. To find out more, please email [email protected]

Today's Wills and Probate