I’ve been a solicitor for 15 years. When I joined the profession it was a very different place.
I trained in a high street practice in Greater Manchester. It was a very ‘hands on’ training contract. All the usual trainee jobs; supporting the solicitors, archiving files, registering titles and sitting behind counsel at court. I also spent a good deal of time supporting the managing partner with aspects of running the firm. Any complaints or ethics issues would come my way. I began to realise what was involved in running a practice, which I think came as a bit of a shock.
I had been attracted to the law, as I think many of us are, to help people make sense of the law, and to ensure that it is applied fairly. At no point in my legal education did anyone point out I was required to be a businesswoman, that I would have to worry about business development, marketing, technology, HR or budgets. From the years of graduate recruitment I have been involved in since, this is a message which is still not getting through.
The profession has changed beyond recognition. I recall older solicitors telling me when I was a trainee about a time when they were unable to advertise. Even then, it seemed a ridiculous concept to me, but many people still thought that was appropriate, advertising was crass and unnecessary. Now competition for customers is fierce, and at QualitySolicitors we address that, supporting our firms to market their businesses.
We now have this notion of compliance. A new word in the legal lexicon with the advent of COLPs and COFAs in 2012. Compliance is something every firm must do and must do well. Senior (and expensive) members of the firm must ensure that compliance is happening in their businesses. So what is it?
Compliance, in short, is running an effective risk managed and ethical business. It has very little to do with dispensing legal advice to clients, which is what many of us were attracted to the law by. But compliance is a part of all of solicitors’ daily professional lives.
Firstly Compliance is about ethics. For many of us, this is instinct. The pursuit of justice is inextricably linked with ethics. When I entered the profession, we had a substantial book of rules, backed up by guidance and case law as to the parameters of those rules. As solicitors we were comfortable with that, we are used to rules and cases. The 2011 Handbook, and the new Code of Conduct created a stir. We now have principles and outcomes. We are free to interpret them, change how we do things, and as long as the customer receives the service in-line with those outcomes we will be compliant. I think it is fair to say that in general most firms continue to deliver their service in the same way they have always done, and there is nothing wrong in that. Those systems and processes were developed to deliver a service to clients which is fair and equitable, and the new code does nothing to change that.
The new code gives us the opportunity to deliver our service differently. It coincided with the introduction of Alternative Business Structures (ABS), and the possibility that some of those businesses will never have operated under the traditional solicitors firm business model. They may have found some of the old rules very difficult to work with. Indeed, we still see remnants of the older rules causing issues, such as the separate business rules, and the outcomes around financial benefit.
At its core, ethics is putting the consumer at the heart of what we do. For example, there are outcomes around delivering a service which is appropriate to the consumer’s needs, i.e. what is best for them, not us. It may be best for us to protect ourselves, to have incredibly detailed and complicated terms and conditions, but is that the best thing for the consumer? Will they understand them, will they read them? If we think they won’t, we need to think about being flexible in our delivery to ensure they are also protected.
What attracted me to QualitySolicitors is that at our core we strive to deliver excellent customer service in a way that puts the customer front and centre of what we do. For example we have Saturday opening, direct lawyer access, fixed priced services to give the customer price certainty.
Compliance is also about having a well-run business. A sustainable business. Compliance is therefore also about financial stability, proper governance, risk management and strategy. Our market changes constantly. We face new threats and opportunities on a near daily basis. Our customer base is dissipating, seeking legal advice from outside the profession, from non traditional legal service providers, and like any market with competition we need to change and adapt.
One of the challenges for us as a profession is that we were not taught how to tackle many of those issues. As I’ve said, it does not form part of our education, and in many firms, trainees and newly qualified solicitors are not exposed in the same way I was to the realities of running a law firm. This is where the growth of the compliance lawyer comes in. A compliance lawyer is not just about making sure your firm does not fall foul of the various regulatory principles and outcomes, or statutory provisions, but looks at the risks involved in your business and helps support the firm in developing a strategy to avoid those risks. Compliance lawyers need to be commercially aware, and understand leadership and change management.
In our firms, very often, the compliance role falls to the managing partner, being the person in the practice most likely to have all those skills. Much of what is required is already within their remit, but keeping up to date, and managing emerging risks is very time consuming. In addition, given the lack of rules and often unique situations they come across, it can be difficult to navigate through the regulatory and statutory requirements.
My role at QualitySolicitors is to support our firms with all those issues. I circulate guidance on rules changes, reminders about important events, and provide consultancy and helpline support to our firms. The feedback I have from the firms is that having compliance support is valuable and saves them time and gives them a soundboard to work through issues.
I do often read about “the compliance burden” as if compliance is unnecessary. Granted some parts of the code, still need some work. However, I think I would answer the allegation of burden, by asking people to recognise what compliance is, it is running a business. We are selling a service, we expect to be paid for it, we are competing with other people who want to deliver the same service better or more efficiently, so in general compliance is fundamental to that, far from unnecessary.