Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Will Aid

It was surprising and disappointing to read yesterday the report in the Law Society Gazette under the headline “Will Aid apologises to solicitors for Co-op offer”.

The apology follows a mass mailing campaign to thousands of members of the public promoting the provision of wills in collaboration with Co-operative Legal Services, amongst others, and containing the phrase “you don’t have to see a solicitor”.

Many solicitors are reported to be up in arms as a result.  Ben Pepperell of Pepperell Solicitors in Hull accused Will Aid of a “blatant disregard for everything we’ve done”. 

So what’s the problem?  Why shouldn’t anybody promote their – or others’ – services on the basis that they can do it at lower cost than competitors who, they suggest, are over-qualified?

That perennial challenge to balance quality and price to produce something that is perceived by a chosen market to be value for money is central to everybody’s business.  Ultimately, wherever you are in the picture, it’s a largely personal view.  

But what has prompted me and others to say that this recent move by Will Aid constitutes a slap in the face is that for years they’ve marketed their very successful campaign in collaboration with solicitors firms up and down the country.  A key if not unique selling point for the Will Aid scheme has been that the participants have their wills prepared by solicitors.

For those who aren’t familiar with the scheme it has been running since 1988 engaging a growing (presumably) number of law firms up and down the country.  The central feature is that solicitors offer to draw up a will for their client who, instead of paying money to the solicitor, then makes a donation to Will Aid.

Whilst there’s no compulsion on the client to donate a certain or even a minimum amount – anything at all – the suggested levels are £95 for a single will and £150 for a couple making mirror wills.   We’ve found that most clients are willing to donate that much and so each transaction means they make a significant payment to the charity.

It’s true that solicitors perceive a potential benefit in the exercise, even though they’re not charging for the work on that particular occasion.  It’s an opportunity to promote the business, to meet new clients who may have other work to bring to the firm and in some cases leads directly to more complex work beyond the basic scope of the scheme.

Even so, it’s an investment.  During last year’s campaign we raised over £1,500 in donations.  Broad brush, the income from those jobs if they had not been within the scheme would probably have been about double that figure.

Of course, it’s right to say that we probably wouldn’t have had at least some of those jobs but for the campaign and the terms of the scheme.  It also follows from that there is a high risk of people only wanting the service because it’s available at a discount and they are not necessarily looking for any continuing relationship or further content. 

To that extent it’s a speculative investment but it’s something that we and many other firms have done because by and large it is promoting our professional services and the wisdom of using a solicitor.

Now, with an email to, reportedly, at least 10,000 members of the public saying that “you don’t need a solicitor”, Will Aid appears to have performed a volte face.   Why?

The explanation offered by Will Aid Chair, Chris Millward, is that when the last campaign ended in November 2014 they received many further enquiries from people wanting to make a will who said that the promotion offered by their local solicitors had ended.  Step forward at that point the Co-op and others prepared to provide the service in return for a donation as well as a discounted fee.

I don’t know if there was anybody in this neck of the woods who has made enquiries of Will Aid since the end of November 2014.  We certainly haven’t been asked by the charity to consider any further work since the end of the promotion. 

Depending on volumes, we would have considered it.   We started our campaign early, during October, simply because the enquiries were around and we were happy to start fielding them.  Within reason, subject to availability and resources, I don’t have a straitjacketed view of these matters.

It’s all change now, I think.  We haven’t made a final decision, but many others have.  They have said they’re unlikely to deal with Will Aid again and that’s perfectly understandable.  The charity recognizes that, another spokesman having said yesterday:

‘We should have been more sensitive to any potential upset this would cause and the impact of this on our relationship with some of the firms that have supported us in the past.
‘We would like to apologise for this, it is a lesson learned and will form a significant part of how we evaluate future activity outside of our November campaign. We also remain absolutely committed to promoting the value of solicitors in the production of legally valid wills.’
Sadly, there is no indication that the collaboration with CRS and others will end as a result – instead a confirmation that the ‘test-marketing’ project will continue until mid-August.

We’re into the realms here of primarily price-driven services, where the quality may not matter so much as the question of how much it costs.  When it comes to wills, that’s a particularly dangerous approach.

You don't have to search long and hard to find a very recent headline about the distress and expense of litigation generated by cheap wills:

It’s nothing new.  Solicitors have, quite reasonably, been banging that drum for many years. Law firms will tell you that the key to provision of legal services at a much lower cost is the reduction in overhead of a key component of any professional service industry – its people.

It’s a fact of life that people who have spent their time and money acquiring knowledge and gaining experience in earlier years expect higher rewards when they’re able to apply the resultant product of their investment that we call expertise.

Those who haven’t made the investment, for whatever reason, neither expect nor command as much.   You can pay them far less. If you push it down the scale you can pay them almost nothing.  See Peanuts , Cleaning bills and other pages on this blog. 

You can’t escape the fact that if you choose the cheap service there is a high risk that ultimately it won’t be very cheerful.  Whether it’s under-settlement of a personal injury claim, defective title to your home or a botched will and a dispute that eats all of the funds in the estate you get what you (don’t) pay for. 

There aren’t many clear lines to be drawn.  It’s what the customer feels comfortable with.   Do they trust the service provider?  Do they think they’re getting what they pay for?  Is it value for money in their eyes?

Many, probably most, consumers and a lot of corporate buyers will say they just don’t know.  They’ll point to conflicting information and lack of benchmarks – not on price, but on quality. 

There is one particular benchmark that stands out in this analysis.  Bear in mind that you’re dealing with the law.  Which body of people is best trained in the law?  Which occupation is most likely to spring to somebody’s mind when you talk about a legal problem?  Who are the people who by and large sell their business primarily on the basis that they know about the law and consequently are regulated and insured in the provision of legal services? 

That’s a strong message and one that Will Aid has used to promote its campaigns for about twenty seven years.  No wonder there are some red faces now.