Demonstrating how to improve access for clients with Skype appointments (first published on Law Society Gazette)

New research by Advice Brighton and Hove found that there are many groups who regularly use Skype and would benefit from using it to obtain legal advice. In this article, firm published on the Law Society Gazette website, Sue Bramall addresses the benefits of Skype for both lawyers and their clients, as well as the practical considerations of using new forms of communication.

If any members of your family were unable to join you for your turkey dinner this Christmas, the chances are that you might have caught up with them via Skype, Google Hangout or FaceTime, on one of any number of electronic gadgets.

On one evening recently, our house was full of students regaling us with tales of online tests and video interviews as part of today's milk round recruitment processes – this is normal for these young people.

Commercial lawyers, particularly those with overseas clients have used video-conferencing and Skype for many years. With the exception of immigration practitioners for whom it must have been a godsend, its use has been slower to catch on among private client lawyers.

In addition to the millennial generation, there are a number of groups of potential clients that regularly use webcams and Skype and would welcome the opportunity to use this technology to obtain legal advice. According to research carried out by Vicky Ling on behalf of Advice Brighton and Hove, the potential market might be larger than you think.

Advice Brighton and Hove commissioned a pilot project in 2015 to explore the benefits of a service provided via webcam, accompanied by online booking of appointments, and looked at whether there are specific client groups that benefit from or prefer accessing advice in this way. While this project focused on social welfare law advice, the lessons learnt will be of interest to all law firms seeking to broaden the market for their legal services.

The groups that found the Skype service particularly beneficial included elderly or disabled clients supported by a carer, as it was possible for both the carer and client to appear together, without leaving the house. One carer explained how much easier it was without the 'backwards and forwards thing over the phone, of speaking on behalf of the person we care for but proving who you are'. Another deaf client was surprised how easy it was to use with his signer.

A client experiencing domestic abuse might find it difficult to leave their home, and the webcam appointment offers a discreet alternative. Similarly a parent with pre-school or disabled children might find it much easier to organise an appointment without having to also organise childcare.

One client who was nervous before the Skype call, reflected that they felt less nervous 'and more relaxed as I was at home in familiar surroundings'. Another mentioned that 'obviously it saves time and money'.

A focus group with the mental health charity MIND, who referred users to the project, pointed out that the webcam option may be less stressful for some clients.

Checking online when exactly Skype launched (2003, it was founded by a Swede and a Dane with the software developed by two Estonians), I also saw that globally 17 per cent of adults now use Skype at least monthly. There are around 5 million active daily users, and last year it was used for an average of 3 billion minutes per day. It is certainly not the preserve of a minority.

The Advice Brighton and Hove revealed a number of practical considerations that need to be addressed for the service to be successful. For anyone interested, these are addressed in the tool kit which accompanies the report and is available here.

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