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Town agents

03 Jul 2020 / Town agents Print

Who ya gonna call?

Like all other legal businesses, town agents have been adversely affected by the lockdown. But as Valerie Peart points out, this vital service could be the saving grace for many law firms.

Town agencies have never been busier – at least, that was up to mid-March, when the pandemic hit.

Ever popular with country law firms who require a Dublin-based agent to handle their administrative affairs in the capital, Pearts Solicitors and Town Agents on Ormond Quay has been, for many, the go-to agency.

Pearts has been in existence since 1883, with upwards of 800 firms on its books, which use them as their agent for a wide variety of services.

Having taken over the business from her brother Michael, when he was appointed to the High Court in 2002, Valerie Peart is now the principal of the firm.

She began working with her dad Denis in 1974 while attending UCD, subsequently qualifying as a solicitor in 1980.

While the firm has deep roots, the town-agency service only began in the 1940s, when John R Peart, Valerie’s grandfather, asked his newly-qualified son Denis to start providing additional administrative services to several close colleagues.

Denis saw the demand and grew the town-agency business from a small base of 20 clients.

“Firms look on us as an extension of their offices,” says Valerie. “By using us, they have access to a further 30 or so staff who have the experience and knowledge they require, and on whom they have come to rely.”

How has the agency side of the firm been coping since the shutdown? “Things were on the up – and then we started wondering where it was all going,” she comments.

“Then it struck us that it was a good time to put ourselves front and centre for people who might not have previously considered that they could use the help of an agent.” 

Under pressure

How are Pearts managing the crisis themselves – and for their clients?

“The coronavirus has created many challenges,” Valerie admits.

“At the very beginning, when things had closed down, we set up a dedicated telephone line that clients could call if they needed to ask us anything, or were looking for specific information.

“Our staff are highly experienced and had answers for the vast majority of questions. And, if not, then they knew who to ask. It’s not that we have all the answers – but sometimes it’s just knowing what to do with the question.”

She believes that town agents will become ever more significant for law firms who are now attempting to ‘prime their pumps’ once again.

“Given where Ireland is right now and the new working restrictions, more than ever we believe that the town agent will be part of the solution, including for Dublin firms.

“One member of our staff in a court’s public office or in a courtroom – representing perhaps 15 different firms – is far better than 15 people from 15 different firms, with one item each.

“Recent demand from Dublin-based practitioners, however, has made us look again at our own business model, leading to the decision to start expanding our town-agency services to firms in the capital,” she says.

End of the world as we know it

Pearts is no different from other law firms who are facing the challenges presented by the lockdown and the gradual return of their staff to the workplace.

Like others, they have been re-arranging their offices, developing rotas for staff who need to continue working from both home and work offices, putting in place dual teams in case anyone catches the virus, and installing plastic shields, distance markers and hand sanitisers.

The reduced numbers in offices are putting pressure on firms who might not have the luxury of being able to release a staff member to attend the Central Office in order to deal with High Court and other superior court matters.

“We don’t fully know yet where the greatest need will arise, but we’re putting ourselves and our expertise at the service of our colleagues. Once law firms start reopening their offices, we believe that the demand for agency services will increase,” Valerie says.

Lone ranger

After an initial two-week closure in March to take stock of the situation and to deep-clean their premises and put safety protocols in place, Pearts reopened on 1 April, with minimum staff attending in Ormond Quay and some working from home, where possible.

The firm had just one staff member attending the Four Courts on a daily basis.

“We were given one appointment per day lasting 15 minutes,” Valerie says. “We’ve now been allowed two 15-minute appointments, which is a positive development.

“These take place at different times of the day, but by appointment only, so we have to manage the work. Though evolving every week, court attendance, at the moment, is also by appointment only.

“Cases being listed by appointment as opposed to the ‘normal’ list system has a certain advantage to it – you’re not waiting for long periods to be called out of a list of 30 or more.”

Currently, it’s a wait-and-see approach in terms of how the courts will operate their case-load.

“Obviously, the Chief Justice will decide how matters develop, along with the presidents of the various courts,” she points out. 

“A sizeable backlog of cases has inevitably built up. Solicitors – and we also – are waiting to see what’s going to happen.”

It’s what you value

How cost-effective is the service that town agents like Pearts provide?

“First of all, ours is a good value-for-money service. Our clients are getting a highly professional service for a very reasonable outlay. A solicitor’s firm might send a staff member to do the same work – but that’s time out of the office.

“It’s much quicker for us to do that for them than for someone to have to hop on the Luas, walk down the quays, queue at the central office, and then get back on the Luas again.

“When someone signs up with us, they get our terms and conditions, including our price list, so they know what the cost is going to be before they engage us.”

As solicitors attempt to reopen their offices, and given the unprecedented restrictions that will continue to have an impact on all law firms, Valerie expects to see a growing demand on town-agency services.

“We carry out many of the routine tasks performed by solicitors. This allows fee earners more time to focus on their core legal work,” she says.

“As a solicitor firm, as well as a town agency, we can offer law firms the service of a solicitor to attend court and look after their clients. We can close sales, handle clients’ moneys, and we are subject to all the Law Society regulations that apply to every solicitor.

“Traditionally, interest in our services has been from firms outside of Dublin. Well, we think that Dublin firms are now rethinking how they are going to get things done in the current crisis – and we are ready, willing and able to help.” 

Mark McDermott
Mark McDermott is the Editor of the Law Society Gazette