I read with interest a recent report by Citizens Advice on litigants in person (LiPs) that said the “distrust of lawyers is exacerbated by stories in the media about ‘fat-cat’ lawyers who overcharge and underdeliver”. And it led me to think – where does this image come from? I can only think the public’s perception of law firms is somewhat confused having watched too many Americanised legal dramas, such as Suits, The Good Wife and, if you’re of a certain age, LA Law.
The findings earlier this month of solicitors’ knowledge and understanding of the SRA Handbook – as detailed in work done by Dr Steven Vaughan – present a worrying yet unsurprising picture. Perhaps the lack of understanding is unsurprising when you consider that the current SRA Code of Conduct is 30 pages long and is supported by another 400-plus pages of rules and regulations. That’s 200 pages fewer than just two years ago, but it is still too much to expect anyone to remember it all.
Evidence suggests the gap between successful and failing law firms is growing, a fact supported by the large number of firms that are under financial stress. It seems the gap will only widen given the constant pressure on law firms to reduce price and increase value. Unfortunately for some firms the gap may have become a chasm and some will fail to reach the other side. In markets where price and value are critical dynamics, history shows the battle is won on the customer experience.
IT has been a major investment and a major headache for all businesses for many years. High resource costs, increasing support costs, laughable licencing costs, expensive change and implementation, poor reliability and decidedly average functionality, are not what we all thought we were buying. Those of you with large IT departments or recent investments in off-the-shelf software, look away now as this article may upset you. The IT service of the future will be customisable, versatile and cost effective. It will do what you want when you want it to and you will only pay a small, monthly fee that covers exactly what you use and no more.
The arguments from the SRA in favour of independence can be summarised as being twofold: that the establishment of an independent regulator for the profession would protect the public more effectively; and that the Law Society’s role is akin to the British Medical Association. With great respect to SRA chief executive Paul Phillip, the argument is self-serving. Mr Philip is to be commended for the great strides forward the SRA has made since his appointment; however, these risk being undermined by the promotion of two arguments which really are about the SRA trying to survive as a regulator and to justify independence from the Law Society.
It’s not only red grouse that will need to keep their heads down on 12 August this year. The Glorious Twelfth is also the date when the Insurance Act 2015 comes into effect, imposing significant new obligations on law firms buying professional indemnity insurance. The Act will impose a new duty on a law firm to make a ‘fair presentation’ of its risk to its insurer. Without overstating it, this new duty is a deep bear trap for the unwary and it will not be sufficient simply to say ‘that’s what we pay our insurance brokers for’.
I’ve long wondered what use the rankings of lawyers, particularly barristers, are in the legal directories. Essentially, you get some of your mates to say nice things about you (you’re not going to do otherwise, now, are you?). Then you pay (how much depends on how much of it you want to be in print) the directories to reproduce these nice things and come up with some artificial rankings in a host of different categories.
Lord Justice Jackson’s lecture, Fixed costs: the time has come, has been characterised by his many critics as his latest assault on access to justice. However, it is reasonable to ask whether an even more fundamental question should also be considered: is there any justification for regulating costs by statute, rule or the judiciary once fixed costs are introduced. That costs are regulated by the courts on the basis of legislation and rules has been in position for so long that it might seem natural to treat it as a given. This approach, however, dates back to a much less sophisticated market for legal services.
The Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW) has published its plans to become a regulator for all the reserved legal activities under the Legal Services Act 2007. This will in due course require approval by the Legal Service Board. The ICAEW is already a regulator for probate activities but this application marks a step change that would enable it to authorise accountancy firms to carry out advocacy, litigation and the other reserved legal activities. The proposal raises a number of problematic issues.
It is somewhat appropriate that Slater & Gordon sponsors England cricket captain Alastair Cook, no stranger himself to sudden collapses. Yesterday’s results could not really have been much worse, for owners, investors and staff alike, with those in the UK now bracing themselves for redundancies. Schadenfreude abounded on social media and some websites, but the real shame is that, until last year, Slater & Gordon was a significant success story.