Guide to Starting Your Own Law Firm: Top 10 compliance mistakes

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Top 10 compliance mistakes to avoid

Many budding lawyers will tell you that starting your own law firm is not for the faint-hearted. Here are 10 compliance mistakes we most commonly see new start-ups make and how you can avoid making them:

1. Not paying attention to the latest SRA Accounts Rules:

The SRA regularly updates its rules, and it’s up to you to be aware of these changes and understand how it impacts your accounts function. The best thing to do is follow the SRA news and adopt a compliance-centric approach to your business in order to avoid serious SRA Accounts Rules breaches.

2. Incorrectly operating a client account:

Ensure your client account includes the required level of information and that you don’t provide banking facilities to clients or third parties. It’s essential that your staff are aware of the relevant money laundering regulations and what constitutes provision of banking facilities.

On the same point, don’t suffer lack of understanding about how to operate without a separate client account, should you choose this route. SRA’s Rule 2.2 is all-or-nothing. It gives you the choice of exemption from having a client account (across the whole practice, not on a client-by-client basis). Whilst this may sound like an easier option (and cheaper as you don’t need accountants’ reports), it could create more work by asking clients to pay third parties directly and subsequently making sure these payments have been made.

Alternatively, another option permitted by the SRA is Third Party Managed Accounts which can provide client onboarding checks, card processing and outsourced client account services within one solution. You must decide what makes the most sense for your business.

3. Not maintaining a clear breach register:

You and your employees must be suitably trained to spot suspected breaches, and you must document how discovered breaches will be rectified and keep a register of this information.

4. Not having a payment of interest policy:

Your policy of interest should clearly state how money held in your client account will be handled, including when it becomes due and the rates you’ll use.

5. Not thoroughly checking your residual and suspense balances:

Analyse which of these monies you currently hold, determine if you should be holding them, return to the proper recipients where possible, and log what you’ve done if these people can’t be located.

6. Not defining ‘promptly’:

This word is dotted throughout the revised SRA Accounts Rules. What ‘promptly’ means to one person is different to another. Choose suitable timeframes for your firm and clarify in your office policies.

7. Not setting realistic service level agreements (SLAs):

There’s no point in setting impossible-to-meet timescales. For example, if you’re a rural practice with no easy access to a local bank or building society, don’t set tight timings regarding paying in cheques. Instead, be honest and upfront about what’s feasible for your unique circumstances and incorporate that into your contracts and policies.

8. Not supporting your COFA:

Your accounting system should allow you to produce a tri-balance comparison of your client bank, cashbook and client ledger balances. By checking and signing a report of this nature, your COFA can meet his / her SRA obligations and you’ll have the visibility you need to make sure compliance measures are being met.

9. Purchasing the wrong legal accounts software:

Ask for recommendations from trusted peers of what works best for them. Be sure to probe any potential software provider about how they handle system enhancements to address ever-changing rules. Your supplier should be rolling out new and enhanced functionalities which allow you to streamline compliance procedures and ensure you’re constantly protected.

10. Not collaborating and communicating effectively:

Compliance is not a one-person task. It’s the duty of everyone in your organisation from your cashiers and compliance officers to senior leaders and solicitors. Seek input from all stakeholders when reviewing compliance-related policy documents and roll out updated documentation with appropriate training company-wide. Keep your accountant informed always so audits can be done quickly and efficiently.

To continue reading, visit Legal practice management for start-ups and download free e-Book.


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