Law: Homing in on the loan arrangers: The tougher economic climate, reflected in the needs of its clients, has forced one firm to alter direction, reports Sharon Wallach

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The Independent Online
The success of a law firm generally grows out of thought and planning, possibly with the addition of a little good fortune. But there are occasions when significant changes to a firm's direction are brought about by circumstances.

Take the case of the 23-partner firm Lewis Silkin, based in Victoria, London. At least one aspect of the firm's work has undergone considerable change as a result of external economic factors.

'We act for institutional residential lenders, among other clients,' says the firm's lead partner, Roger Alexander, 'and the nature of our work for them has totally changed over the past three or four years. It's a story about adaptation to the needs of clients in a changing economic climate.'

Work for lenders of loans to individuals traditionally involved the transfer of portfolios to increase the lender's book, and occasionally repossessions, he says.

'Historically, residential lenders were seen as totally secure. The high point was August 1988 when double Miras was abolished. Since then, the market has taken a dive and this led directly to a change in the type of work being done,' Mr Alexander says.

'Lenders had to consider how to prevent loans turning bad and where they were bad, how to minimise the loss, then look round to see if anyone else had contributed to the loss. This led to an upsurge in the amount of repossessions, actions for shortfall in recovery and a huge increase in actions against valuers, solicitors and occasionally accountants.'

'There were clearly some rogues,'says Richard Waller, a litigator and a partner involved in the firm's services to lenders group, 'but there was also a breakdown in professionalism. And in a number of cases, solicitors' actions bordered on fraud.'

The problems were in part fuelled by the hard sell of remortgaging, when lenders came up with all kinds of promotional ideas, he says. 'They talked about acquiring a 'nice windfall' of pounds 20,000 simply by remortgaging.

'This gave rise to a culture among brokers and valuers whereby a property could be valued at almost anything on the basis that even if it wasn't worth it then, it would be in a year's time. What was generated was at best sloppiness, at worse dishonesty, among a whole group of professionals.'

Mr Alexander cites a case of a surveyor who valued properties without visiting them, and another who substituted a mansion for the estate's lodge in his valuation.

Mr Waller describes a typical process from the point of view of the lawyer: the borrower falls into arrears which take months to sort out. Repossession, a lengthy process, follows and then comes an investigation by the lender of possible routes for recovery of its money.

'Lenders are quite imaginative when it comes to looking for third parties to recover from,' Mr Waller says. 'A borrower is unlikely to be good for a pounds 50,000 shortfall. From my perspective, the key issue is knowing and understanding the client and his business,' says Mr Alexander. 'Then it's a question of adapting our own services to meet these as and where appropriate.'

Training is very important to the process. This is conducted internally wherever possible, with experts brought in to talk on specific areas. 'Only by doing that can we have something tailor-made,' Mr Alexander says. The firm also holds regular sessions in which experiences are compared and cases discussed, with a careful look taken at various aspects to see if and how they can be improved. 'The priority is the sharing of expertise, in terms of both tactics and law,' he says.

The exercise is particularly important in this rapidly developing area of law; it is only relatively recently that a large body of cases are coming to trial. Lewis Silkin was involved in one case, concerning a property that had fallen markedly in value.

Mr Waller explains: 'The lender wanted to delay a sale until the market had recovered; the borrower contended that it was not up to the lender to speculate with his property. In the summer of 1992, the Court of Appeal made a policy decision that was contrary to well-established authorities and ruled that the lender should, in certain circumstances, be forced to sell its security.'

Recruitment is another essential part of the process of adaptation. According to Peter Scott, Mr Silkin's practice manager, the key appointment has been a poacher turned gamekeeper - a lawyer who acted formerly for an insurer, resisting actions.

'We are also recruiting internally, with our trainees coming through. In addition, we have brought in a couple of more junior City people with general litigation experience,' Mr Scott says. 'We have found that the market in people of the exact experience is fairly thin, because it is new, so we are helping to develop that too.'

The third key component is the provision of an IT system appropriate to the client's needs. 'Each client has his own system that we need to match in order to provide statistics meaningful to him, particularly when working with a large number of actions,' says Mr Alexander. 'It also makes it easier for the client to provide us with information.'

Allied to this is the firm's practice of appointing one partner responsible for ensuring that each client's aims, objectives and business is understood, so that there is a single senior point of contact, and 'the client doesn't have to manage our internal processes.'

This kind of work is a finite area, says Mr Alexander. 'The raft of cases does have an end. Now, we are looking ahead to the time when we can attract work from the other end - the insurers - and when we can use the same experience but with a different emphasis.'

(Photograph omitted)