Weekly round-up: LDPs, complaints, PII, "heir hunters" and lawyer services v legal services

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By Legal Futures

2 September 2010


Sampson: upping the Legal Ombudsman's profile ahead of launch

There is a lot to cram into this week’s round-up of other regulation and Legal Services Act stories on the web.

First of all, we should direct you to Legal Futures Editor Neil Rose’s Guardian blog that develops his recent article on Legal Futures that just being part of the high street network should not be enough to protect law firms – access to justice cannot be judged purely by quantity. Click here.

Then we have the latest issue of Briefing, the new free e-zine produced by the Legal Support Network, which this month focuses on staffing and resourcing, and asks whether law firms need to rethink their traditional approach to recruitment so as to put in place the business skills they need to thrive in the future. Click here.

Legal Week talked to some of the non-solicitors who have become partners in legal disciplinary practices and found that the many firms who have not gone down this road may be “missing a trick”. For many non-solicitors who have been appointed as partners, the change of title is “huge”, while there are also benefits to their firms in being seen as progressive. Click here.

In the run-up to the launch of the Legal Ombudsman next month, chief ombudsman Adam Sampson is starting to get around (we interviewed him some time ago – see here). Last week he outlined the scheme in an interview with the Birmingham Post, explaining that if a complaint cannot be resolved amicably – and he recognises that many cannot be – then “We will then ask a simple question: ‘Did the lawyer give decent service?’” Mr Sampson also suggested that the ombudsman’s location in the centre of Birmingham “can only cement the city’s reputation as a centre of legal excellence”. Click here.

Mr Sampson was also interviewed in this week’s Law Society Gazette, in which he gave a strong flavour of the major shift in dealing with complaints that the legal profession will have to get used to. It will no longer be a formal, legalistic process, he emphasises, but an informal, inquisitorial and paperless exercise that will focus on the service, and not necessarily whether a lawyer complied with the rules.

Mr Sampson was questioned about Legal Futures’ exclusive story on the relatively small number of staff from the Legal Complaints Service who are moving over to the ombudsman (see here – this has actually been the most read story on this site to date). He puts this down to lower levels of pay, “an unwillingness on the part of some to join an organisation that is going to do something in a very different way and a very different culture” and a conscious decision on his part not to have too many people from the service as they would bring with them its culture. Click here.

On the professional indemnity front, Insurance Times revealed a late new entrant to the market – Giles-owned Ink Underwriting Agencies has teamed up with broker St Giles Legal and Professional Risks, backed by Danish insurer Alpha Insurance A/S, to offer cover to sole practitioners and firms of up to 25 partners. Ink managing director Mike Smith said the facility will have the capacity to write “tens of millions of pounds” in cover. Click here.

The Gazette reported on a move by virtual law firm Scott-Moncrieff Harbour & Sinclair to bring together a group of law firms under “one ‘umbrella LLP’ that will have the sophisticated risk management processes sought by insurers”. The firm’s managing partner is Law Society Deputy Vice-President Lucy Scott-Moncrieff. Click here.

Innovative Scottish solicitor Brian Inkster, whose firm claims to be the first in Scotland on Twitter, used contributions from his Twitter followers to compile this excellent presentation to trainee solicitors on how to make the best use of IT in their fledgling careers. Click here.  Along similar lines, a blog by Shireen Smith of IP firm Azrights highlights how important it is for would-be lawyers to demonstrate advanced IT or writing skills so as to stand out from the crowd. Click here.

The BBC reported this week that the closure of Stockport law firm Wolstenholmes is set to cost more than £10m – the Solicitors Regulation Authority has already paid out almost that amount to former clients, while the firm’s administrators said it owed £3.5m to creditors at the point it was shut down. Click here.

Jordan Furlong, a Canadian journalist turned law firm management consultant, is one of a small but growing number of people across the pond who see the massive changes coming the way of the legal profession and that North America will not be isolated from them. An article on his Law21 blog this week picked up on the will-writing debate over here (with several kind links to Legal Futures) “because this looks like the first major skirmish in what will be a decade-long war over a crucial question: what should be classified as ‘lawyer services’ and what can be classified merely as ‘legal services’?”

Over this decade, he predicts, there will be a “great sorting out” of demand for legal services. He continues: “As time goes by, the category of ‘legal services’ will grow by volume, while ‘lawyer services’ will shrink by volume; but both categories, paradoxically, will grow in quality. Lawyers in particular will benefit from a task list that requires more sophistication and higher-level skills. For that reason alone, but also because of the ultimate interests of clients, we should be working to narrow our focus on the highest-level work while simultaneously supporting the development of practices and regimes to oversee the more basic work we used to do. It’s anyone’s guess whether our profession will step up to that challenge.” Click .

Further evidence of growing interest in what is happening beyond the US’s shores comes in an article in the American Bar Association’s Journal entitled “Law, the investment”. This focuses mainly on outsourcing and third-party litigation funding, but recognises the way the wind is blowing. “If you’ve got a fair amount of money from capital markets funding law firms from other countries, and you are in fact competing with them or opposing them in other cases, it would very likely have an impact on what you can do for clients,” said immediate past ABA president Carolyn Lamm. Nick Baughan of investment bank Marks Baughan & Co adds: “If the law firms themselves can’t have outside investors, the market will continue to chip away at every part of a law firm that is not the pure provision of legal advice. Anything that can be provided legally by a third party will be.” Click here.

On a relevant tangent to the debate over what work should be regulated, and specifically the debate over will-writing, the campaign for regulation of so-called “heir hunters” by Legal Futures Associate Title Research was featured heavily in The Times recently. This focused on the practice by other probate genealogists to get beneficiaries to agree to pay a percentage of the estate for the work, usually before they provide the identity of the deceased or the size of the legacy. Title Research says the work should be done on either a fixed fee or hourly basis. However, Michael Tringham of Hoopers – who told the paper that about half of its work was done on contingency fees, usually of 5-10% – argued that their work in researching estates is a “gamble” and can take a long time to complete.

In an editorial, personal finance editor Andrew Ellson said the best way to avoid the potentially high fees charged by some probate genealogists would be for everyone to keep an up-to-date will, but added: “The Legal Services Board, which regulates the legal market, ought to review urgently whether such high fees are ever justified for this type of work.” Click here and here (subscription required).

The debate about reserved legal activities rumbles on, with Professor Richard Moorhead on his Lawyer Watch blog having his say on the recent Legal Services Policy Institute research. He suggests there is simply insufficient data on which to base any decisions at the moment, but raises an interesting question as to whether, contrary to the general line of thinking, advocacy should be regulated but not reserved because the court and the adversarial nature of proceedings provide enough protection. Click here. He has also blogged this week on headline pricing on the back of our story, arguing that there is a real opportunity for those lawyers who are bold about pricing, and how far legal comparison websites might go to demonstrate the quality of providers. Click here and here.

Finally, after his Venn diagram last week of how lawyers and clients see law firm websites, US law firm consultant Matt Homman has produced another one on a pet peeve of his – what lawyers and clients want from lawyers’ website biographies. Click here.

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