British Wills and Probate Awards: Judges’ Insights with Trevor Worth and Jane Cassell

As Champagne Sponsors at this year’s British Wills and Probate Awards 2021, we continue to celebrate with our Judges’ insights series. We will be sharing weekly interviews with the judges themselves to get their views on the future of the industry and what firms need to do to excel.

Following last week’s topical interview with Emily Deane, Technical Counsel at the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners, and Ian Bond, Director and Head of Wills & Estates at Thursfields Solicitors. We are joined this week by Trevor Worth, Managing Director and Founder of Portcullis Legals (LinkedIn), and Jane Cassell, of JC Independent Wills & Probate (LinkedIn).

What is the greatest industry change/shift you’ve observed in your career to date?

Trevor: I would say the greatest industry challenged I’ve observed was when RDR took place, in 2012 I believe. IFAs suddenly took the opportunity to “estate plan” for their clients seriously and refer clients in large numbers to a partner like ourselves. The drive by the FCA (then the FSA) towards qualifications and a more professional approach to financial planning was most welcome and it effectively meant the great IFAs stayed in the profession. Those that couldn’t meet the new criteria, left. This helped create stronger relationships between the legal and financial sector and of course, most importantly, it benefitted clients.

Alongside your professional work, running JC Independent Wills and Probate, you are passionate about spreading awareness and encouraging people to have open conversations around wills and probate. What do you think are the most important aspects of wills and the probate process that everyone should know about?

Jane: I’ve got three things I’d like to share with everyone.

Discuss fees openly with your lawyer. Specifically, ask about fixed fees.

When putting your Will in place or reviewing it, you don’t have to have a company to be your executor. There are some specific reasons which may mean it’s good to consider it, but for most everyday people, choosing family members to be executors is appropriate and creates real choice regarding a Probate lawyer, later on.

My very personal story means I’m on a mission to promote awareness about the fact that marriage cancels Wills.

When I was nine years old, my Mum died. She’d got married a year before, and my step father took the whole estate. I feel sure that’s not what she would have wanted, and this personal story is why I’m so passionate about my messages.

What do you see as the greatest challenge facing the wills and probate industry today?

“Employers need to be seen to collaborate with their colleagues moving forward to create the hybrid model that best serves clients, colleagues and the firm.”
Trevor Worth, Portcullis Legals

Trevor: The lack of willingness for certain practitioners to embrace technology. It’s here, clients like it and it makes business more accountable and efficient. Similarly with the drive for greater transparency on fees so the public can self-filter as they do on so many other services already, many legal practitioners will need to quickly move with the times or just accept the inevitable decline.

What was the greatest lesson of the events of the past year and a half, and what will be the lasting effect of the pandemic on wills and estate management?

Trevor: Communication and how critical it is – with clients but also colleagues and professional partners. The lasting effect will be felt around the area of how clients want to be advised going forward (new platforms of delivery, transparent fees, etc.) and how colleagues want to embrace the world of work. We introduced the 4 Day Week in January 2019 and have not looked back since. Employers need to be seen to collaborate with their colleagues moving forward to create the hybrid model that best serves clients, colleagues and the firm. Old school working practices are on their way out.

What barriers need to be overcome to encourage greater integration of technology by practitioners in the industry?

Jane: When I trained, over twenty years ago, a senior partner referred to himself as a dinosaur. I now consider myself old school. I like paper. I hand craft Wills and Lasting Powers of Attorney (LPAs) for my clients. I believe letters should be bespoke for each unique client, and not a computer generated “commentary”. That probably gives you an idea of what the innovators are up against. Traditional views like mine! That old school is a really good school, but development is always welcome.

Trevor: Quite simply, the fear of the unknown has to be overcome with communication. Greater demonstration of the benefits of technology would help enormously as well as explanations in clear plain English rather than technical jargon. Show don’t tell. The legal profession has suffered from feeding the public with the same technical jargon over the years. Now technology providers need to simplify too.

What is the most important area to focus investment on across the industry right now?

“Great colleagues who are motivated and refreshed will represent the business and provide better service to clients than that of the same old treadmill many have experienced for decades”
Trevor Worth

Trevor: For me it is the working week. How can we make this better for our colleagues so they are better placed, both mentally and physically, to serve our clients in the best way possible? Great colleagues who are motivated and refreshed will represent the business and provide better service to clients than that of the same old treadmill many have experienced for decades. Be brave and talk to your colleagues and actually listen to what they are saying to find a better way forward.

“Things are now changing. More legal services providers realise there’s an appetite for fixed fees. My purpose is to raise awareness in the public, to ask for fixed fee options.”
Jane Cassell, JC Independent Wills & Probate

How do you expect the industry will expand in future years and what improvements need to be made to the wills, probate and estate management sector?

Trevor: I hope a more entrepreneurial and inclusive younger generation will get hold of the sector and shake it upside down. Integration of technology that better serves clients and businesses, thereby driving efficiencies is needed, as well as a sector truly welcoming of innovators and doers, rather than just academics. There are huge opportunities in our dusty old sector.

Jane: I’ve always said that fees need to be clear. I’ve been saying this for years. As a profession, we need to be really clear what we’re offering and for what price. We need to discuss fixed fees openly. The public needs to be more aware of that option, where appropriate.

We also need to accept as a profession that in non-contentious matters, the work is predictable. I’ve got myself into disagreements with fellow professionals over this, but here’s what I’m saying. If a client asks how much it is to deal with Probate after a death, the work involved can be predicted. There may be a property, savings (with one or five banks), there may be shares, or even a buy-to-let portfolio. Once relevant details are established, a true specialist can then predict the likely work involved and provide a fixed fee that a family can rely on.

Things are now changing. More legal services providers realise there’s an appetite for fixed fees. My purpose is to raise awareness in the public, to ask for fixed fee options.

How has remote working impacted the probate and estate management process and/or client service over the course of the pandemic?

Jane: Most professionals have been through the imbalance of working many more hours than pre-pandemic when we went to work physically and then came home. We have to be mindful of our own boundaries. We must do our best to observe them, wherever we can.

“We have to be mindful of our own boundaries. We must do our best to observe them, wherever we can.”
Jane Cassell

Trevor: It has forced firms to consider different service offerings and to review the way they work with and look after the welfare of their teams. It has also highlighted the inadequacies of the services we all rely on to administer estates, such as the Probate Courts and the OPG. I fully understand they have had unprecedented issues to deal with but that doesn’t help families or practitioners. Digital is here, so let’s embrace it and retain the best elements of personal service where it is important to the clients to do so.

What are the most important factors for clients to consider when approaching firms and how can firms position themselves as the first choice within their sector?

Trevor: Reputation, in terms of transparent reviews on search engines, personal recommendations from family or friends, and expertise or qualifications that are nationally recognised are all important. There are a plethora of platforms to position yourself on now but many firms lack the discipline to utilise those platforms regularly. That is of tremendous benefit to those that do see the way forward! I still believe that the non-regulated legal services sector needs a massive shake up to protect the public it purports to serve, and hopefully Mayson’s findings will help deliver that.

Jane: We tend to assume that expertise is a given. It’s not. Check out what level of specialism is relevant to the service you require. Firms should put themselves out there and let people know what they love to do and what they can provide an outstanding service in. That’s what the British Wills & Probate Awards, sponsored by Exizent, is all about.

Wills & Probate includes so many areas that I call super-specialist, that even a Wills & Probate specialist may not deal with, such as financial abuse, predatory marriage, farming disputes, Court of Protection work and so many more. If a firm is well known for a certain “super-specialist” area of expertise, then it makes it easy for fellow professionals to refer work to them.

One of the lessons of Jane’s Story, the nine-year-old girl who got nothing from her Mum’s estate, is to get advice from a Contentious Probate lawyer early on in a tricky situation. It really does increase the chances of a good outcome.

“If a firm is well known for a certain “super-specialist” area of expertise, then it makes it easy for fellow professionals to refer work to them.”
Jane Cassell, JC Independent Wills & Probate

Your journey into law was one of perseverance and resilience. What would be your advice to anyone looking to pursue a career in this industry?

Jane: If you want a career in law, try to get some experience before you embark on the training. It’s a big investment of your time and energy, and you need to be sure that the environment holds some attraction. Personally, I came from a family with no legal connections. My Dad, because of the Court case over my Mum’s estate, referred to lawyers as “daylight robbers.” My A-levels were a disappointment to me.

However, when I graduated in English with Philosophy, I got to work to secure some legal experience. A local solicitor in my hometown allowed me to tag along to a Crown Court trial. My karate sensei at university arranged for me to work as a secretary at a firm in Moss Side. When you reach out to people, they show kindness. Before I knew it, I’d built up a sensible amount of relevant experience on my CV.

When it came to securing a training contract, I picked up the telephone and rang all legal firms in a big yellow book called the Yellow Pages. Twice. I made it. I still love it. You need to want it. I’ll always remember the talk we were given at Law School when we were told that if we didn’t have legal connections, we may never qualify. That just made me even more determined to create the connections to make it happen.

My final tip on the career subject, is to talk to people. And don’t assume anything. Show everyone respect.

“Do good whilst doing business is one of our mantras and helping to coach, mentor and inspire others along the way fits within that approach.”
Trevor Worth, Portcullis Legals

From your perspective as a business founder/entrepreneur, what inspired you to start your own business?

Trevor: The motivation from my perspective was to have control of my own working life and to hopefully create opportunities and wealth for myself and colleagues by shaping an inclusive and invigorating work environment, that would aspire to deliver world class service levels to our clients. As a 19-year-old student I had a summer job two years in succession, where one of the colleagues I worked with (who at the time I thought was old at 35!) gave me the benefit of his life advice daily, but there was one stand out phrase: “Don’t pick your job, pick your boss”. I took that to heart, and except a couple of years being employed, decided to start my own business and strive to be the best “boss” I could be, to myself and anyone I employed. Ironically when we launched our 4 Day Week in 2019, The Sun newspaper printed a headline about our initiative and the headline was “The Best Boss Ever”. That made me smile.

What is the value of mentorship, collaboration and knowledge sharing within the industry?

Trevor: This is one of the most important aspects of any of our working lives. To give back both within and outside of your firm (to other parties in the community such as universities, colleges or groups helping young entrepreneurs start out), is both rewarding and invigorating. I encourage all of our team to be as helpful as possible to their colleagues and to develop opportunities to mentor other stakeholders. I think there is a general willingness to help others within the profession but as always that depends upon the contacts you have built up, which is not always helpful for those starting out. Do good whilst doing business is one of our mantras and helping to coach, mentor and inspire others along the way fits within that approach.

 

This article was submitted to be published by Exizent as part of their advertising agreement with Today’s Wills and Probate. The views expressed in this article are those of the submitter and not those of Today’s Wills and Probate.

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