Fifth of law firms admit to substandard service

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18 September 2014

Brannan: education and training practices are well embedded across the profession

A fifth of law firms admit to providing a substandard service at some point in the past year, with extra training for staff the common response, Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) research has revealed.

The finding came as part of independent research into the training systems used by law firms and alternative business structures, which overall found that ongoing professional development is “well integrated into the process of being and working as a solicitor”.

The research forms part of the SRA’s ‘Training for Tomorrow’ programme, which will lead to firms rather than individuals being responsible to the regulator for education and training, and focusing less on learning processes and more on outcomes. It will also see the scrapping of the points-based CPD regime.

Based on 20 in-depth interviews and a survey of 750 SRA-regulated entities, the report by IFF Research said that 19% of firms had identified “failures in competent legal services delivery” in the preceding 12 months. Of them, 64% had had no more than four incidents, but 13% recorded 10 or more. The report did not investigate their severity.

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The main way failures by partners was identified was client feedback, while supervisors tended to pick up problems with other fee-earners. File reviews were also a common method. Larger firms were more likely to identify failures than smaller practices – 40% of the largest firms surveyed did, as against 13% of the smallest.

Putting in place learning, education and training (LET) was by far the most common response to a failure.

More broadly, the research found that seven out of ten firms already have formal training processes in place and monitor staff development through performance appraisal.

The report also found that a wide range of less formal training was undertaken, including work shadowing, mentoring or case-file discussions. Given the effectiveness of these on-the-job activities, it recommended that they should be considered an integral part of continuing professional development.

Unsurprisingly larger firms were more likely to have formal processes than small practices – although almost all kept LET records – but IFF said it was clear that small firms could achieve the same levels of control through the use of “far less formal structures”.

Further, it said, small firms were much less likely to employ some of the practices that might be considered to carry risk; in particular, they were less likely to use unqualified staff to deliver services, and to allow them to operate unsupervised.

The researchers said this meant that any policy the SRA issues needs to consider all staff, and not just solicitors.

They concluded by observing that moving to an outcomes-focused approach to determining LET requirements needed a “considerable” shift in mindset at some firms. “Only half of firms currently have a system for determining the impact of the LET they invest in. Similarly, under half of the systems that are in place for recording LET activity currently allow space for self-reflection on learning outcomes.”

Julie Brannan, SRA director of education and training, said: “This report confirms that education and training practices are well embedded across the profession. It demonstrates the value of less formal approaches to learning and supports our new approach to continuing competence.”

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