Law: Quality is the key to success: Sharon Wallach meets Richard Berenson, chairman of Conquest Legal Marketing, parent company of the National Solicitors' Network

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A BATHTIME fantasy is now reality for Richard Berenson, a solicitor, now the chairman of Conquest Legal Marketing, parent company of the National Solicitors' Network.

The fantasy developed when Mr Berenson was in private practice, running a six-partner firm in west London with a largely institutional client base. It involved one firm having branches all over the country offering the same standard of legal service. The reality is the nationwide network, with fixed-fee scales and consistent minimum standards.

'I became very fed up with the quality of legal services generally,' Mr Berenson says. During the cut-price war of the 1980s, many solicitors attempted to remain profitable by taking on increasing volumes of work, with the inevitable result of a drop in the levels of service, he says.

Conquest (it stands for conveyancing quest, not dominance) and the network were launched in May last year. Mr Berenson had set a minimum of 120 members for the coverage needed - in the end the network started out with 170. 'Our big fear was that we would get a lot of poor quality, panicked firms,' Mr Berenson says. 'But it was not the case. We managed to put off the wrong sort of firm from applying. What we wanted were go-ahead practices, not those looking for a lifeline to pull them out of the recession.'

The vetting procedure used by Conquest, is, says Mr Berenson, no stronger than any reasonable firm would expect. It concerns itself with the philosophy of the applicant firm, its levels of technology and expertise, its capacity and facilities.

Quality is the network's most important objective. It is, says Mr Berenson, the key to the successful provision of legal services. Personal service is important too, he believes, pointing to a trend for the personal element to be diminished in favour of a production line style of operation. The personal touch also helps eliminate the greatest cause of complaint about solicitors - poor communication.

Conquest has its own complaints division run by a former unit trust ombudsman and barrister, Adrian Parsons. The department has a twofold aim: first, to reassure clients that complaints are dealt with quickly and second, to identify members who persistently fail to meet quality standards. Firms also receive annual visits from Conquest representatives, similar in style to the initial quality control inspection.

The number of complaints against members is low, due, Mr Berenson believes, to the careful initial selection.

The network was launched primarily as a new business seeking organisation for its members. 'By the provision of an appreciable amount of work to a limited number of firms, those firms come to know their institutional clients and their specific needs and thus both parties can work together to improve the service that they provide to the public and to each other,' according to Conquest literature.

Currently, the network is marketed only to the lending institutions, but Conquest intends to begin direct marketing to the public later this year.

The fee levels quoted are competitive. The institutions agree that downward pressure of fees is not in their interest, Mr Berenson says. 'It led to a lot of slapdash conveyancing.

One of Conquest's latest ventures is a legal aid franchise pack containing office and quality procedures manuals and skeleton business, services and marketing plans. The pack, like others of its kind, has not received the endorsement of the Legal Aid Board although the LAB says it is happy to offer guidance on its proposals. Included in the price ( pounds 500 to members, pounds 950 to non-members) is personal service - help in tailor-making and implementing the scheme.

Agreement has been reached with a major bank for, among other things, a national wills service to customers and staff. 'We are worried about the plethora of will-making services - most just undertake a form-filling exercise with no personal back-up,' Mr Berenson says.

Another area in which the network is active is Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). Together with an ADR specialist company, Conquest is proposing to launch a mediation service by the end of the year.

'There are non-solicitor orientated groups already out there working in the field,' Mr Berenson says. 'But at the moment, people still rush to solicitors, who have no option but to follow the adversarial path.

'Mediation is a lot cheaper, and going through a solicitor means first, you can determine whether mediation is the right route and then if it fails, the work already done is not wasted and can be used on the adversarial route.

Conquest began with a staff of five. Now there are 16, with more joining 'almost daily'. The network, though entirely managed by Conquest, has its own board of directors: the full-time members of the Conquest board and 10 part-time regional directors appointed from among the members.

These now number 180, with others seeking to join, but says Mr Berenson, new members are taken on only when there is a matching volume of work. In the meantime, Conquest has launched an associate membership group, a sort of unofficial waiting list. Associates are not vetted, neither do they get new business, but they do have access to benefits including discounts on professional indemnity top-up insurance and practice development initiatives such as the franchise pack.

Networks of solicitors are the future so far as Mr Berenson is concerned. His personal vision is of three or four credible networks with most of the middle range of the profession belonging to one or two. The networks will liaise with the professional bodies and there will be altogether more grassroots communication, he predicts.

As far as the National Solicitors' Network is concerned, it covers the country fairly well, although Richard Berenson was heard to ask plaintively: 'Does anyone know a firm in Newcastle? We are desperate for a member there.'

(Photograph omitted)