Legal awards: Customer service a priority for big prize winners

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THE personal touch is recognised as a crucial factor in retaining existing clients and gaining new ones by the key players at this year’s awards, writes David Lee

IN AN era where legal and technical skills are largely taken for granted, a number of teams who triumphed at the Scott and Co Scottish Legal Awards 2013 were recognised for the old-fashioned attribute of exceptional customer service.

Mackinnons, which won both the Hotel Missoni Private Client Team of the Year and Registers of Scotland Residential Property Team of the Year, believes it stood out because it goes the extra mile for every client.

Maureen Blease, Mackinnons’ private client and leasing manager, says: “We stress the importance of daily contact with clients. We pride ourselves on personal contact and that is especially important for those clients where maybe nothing much is happening and their property is very hard to sell.”

Blease says this is reflected in feedback questionnaires distributed by the firm – and in repeat business, or business by recommendation from satisfied customers. “Some people who have engaged with us as buyers come back to us when they want to sell, because they have been impressed by our service and remember how they were treated,” she says.

While she acknowledges the challenges of the market, Blease says that firms like Mackinnons, operating in the Aberdeen area, have been very fortunate: “It is a challenging market generally but there is still high activity in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. There are lots of people still able to buy and sell and an incredibly buoyant leasing market. Premium rates are there if landlords can provide the standard of accommodation expected.”

Blease says there has been a “very promising start” to 2013 and the firm hopes to use the award as a springboard to even better things. McEwan Fraser Legal was highly commended in the same category, reflecting what the judges noted was a high standard of entries.

Mackinnons’ win in the Private Client category is also attributed to this personal service by Ashleigh McConnell, associate in the private client team. “We do not treat private client work as an add-on; everything we do is focused on the individual and that makes clients appreciate us – and recommend us. Analysis I did for the awards programme showed we are picking up a lot of new work,” McConnell notes.

The judges’ remarks describe Mackinnons as “great supporters of the local community” and note excellent testimonials. McConnell says the personal touch is not so much drummed into staff as reflected in its recruitment of people with that kind of approach.

Much of the firm’s private client work is in executry, with increasing workloads in guardianship and Power of Attorney applications, as well as a solid base in personal tax advice.

The personal touch is perhaps even more evident in the selection of the winner of the Scott and Co Employment Team of the Year – Fox and Partners. The firm’s director, Carol Fox, attributes its win to standing up for employees who sometimes have nowhere left to turn.

“Hopefully, we impressed the judges with the great results we have achieved in difficult individual cases,” says Fox. “We are dealing with a lot of cases coming from Legal Aid or the Citizens’ Advice Bureaus, some of which have been turned down by others but where we have been successful. We are honest about what we can achieve but we have real integrity and passion about what we are doing and getting the very best result for the client.”

Fox says the team – Fox, her fellow director Brian McLaughlin, senior solicitor Kathleen Bolt, former trainees kept on permanent contracts Joanne Leathem and Lisa Byars, and current trainee Karen Douglas – are “very tight and share the same values”.

Fox adds: “We deal with very difficult cases, but we are very determined. We want people to know we fight their corner passionately. There is a great inequality of arms in employment tribunals in favour of the employer – and we want to ensure a balance, and access to justice.”

She highlights the case of Mary Caldwell, whose trade union declined to represent her – but who won her case with the help of Fox and Partners. “We don’t go through the motions,” says Fox. “We appreciate how difficult it is when you are dismissed and we are delighted and heartened by this award.”

One firm more accustomed to winning awards is Harper Macleod, which picked up the Wolffe Energy Team of the Year. David Bone, head of its energy and natural resources team, which has grown from three staff to 25 in the last three years, says: “There is a breadth and depth to our work and a quality and breadth to our clients. We act for large organisations like Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Water and Scottish Coal, and developers such as SSE and E.On, but we also work for smaller communities developing wind farms.”

Bone, who has 20 years of experience in the renewables sector, adds: “Renewables is a large part of our work but, within that, we cover wind, wave and tidal and hydro.”

Another winner praised for the variety of its work was Simpson & Marwick, which won Family Law Team of the Year and the Innovation Award. Shaun George, who leads the team, says a range of different approaches – including collaboration, mediation and arbitration – sets the firm apart.

“We offer clients the whole range of dispute resolution options, and all our solicitors are encouraged to train in these areas and develop their skills. Clients are increasingly cost-conscious and we aim to resolve cases in the most economical way possible. Litigation is a last resort. We are at the forefront of collaborative practice, with five solicitors regularly working in that area.”

High-profile cases dealt with by the team in 2012 included an international child relocation case and a number of high-value financial provision divorce cases, especially in the Aberdeen area.

“The award represents recognition for the whole team of 12, including the paralegals and support staff,” says George, who is one of three partners in the team alongside Richard Smith and Lisa Girdwood. “I think we are uniquely placed to offer specialist, partner-led services from all three major cities – and we are always conscious that every case is dependent on the circumstances and the personalities of the individuals involved.”

HBM Sayers, which took away the Litigation Team of the Year from a strong shortlist of five, was praised by judges for excellent evidence and case studies. David Taylor, a member of the firm’s management board, says HBM had “a good year in very difficult economic circumstances”, benefiting from a niche market.

“Our staple is insurance-related litigation and we are on the panels of a number of major insurers who operate worldwide. We are a relatively small firm but we have had a good year in terms of service delivery and quality. The law is developing in such a way that you need to be able to demonstrate the depth and breadth of what you can offer. To deliver that, we have created a number of specialist units.”

Taylor also believes that the firm benefited from its youth. “We have a young, fresh and dynamic team and we pride ourselves on growing our own. Lots of our trainees either stay with us or go away and come back.”