Do solicitors get a raw deal?

Posted by Martin Gregory of Legal Futures Associate Lateral Law/The Solicitors Practice

Down in the mouth: why do healthcare providers have so much less paperwork than solicitors?

A fortnight ago, my family and I visited our new dental surgery for the first time. On arrival, we all had to complete a registration form and then took it in turns to see the dentist. My wife and I needed some follow-up treatment, so we arranged another appointment and my wife was asked to pay a deposit towards its cost (which had already been explained to us). Apart from a receipt, no further paperwork was forthcoming. We returned last week, had the work done (which wasn’t too bad, thanks) and paid the balance. Again, only a receipt was given.

I’m sure you’re all more or less familiar with this scenario. After all, it seems, certainly from my own experience of other surgeries and chiropractors etc at least, that this is the norm: let the patient provide the required information, take immediate credit/debit card payments, hand over a receipt and that’s it. However, being a solicitor, I couldn’t help but compare this experience with that of my own clients. Here’s what I would have had to do in similar circumstances:

  • If possible, I would have provided some basic costs and other information before the first meeting to ensure that there were no misunderstandings, especially concerning the scope, time limit and cost of the interview.
  • In any case, I would have supplied a detailed client-care letter, compliant not just with the Solicitors Code of Conduct but also with the myriad of other rules and regulations to which we are subject, and asked the client to sign, date and return a copy. Again, this would, ideally, have take place prior to the initial meeting (to the extent that I could have satisfied the rules and regulations at that stage with any outstanding information etc following as soon as possible). As part and parcel of this, I would have had to agree a level of service and spell out our respective responsibilities, not only my name and status, but that of any supervisor, the basis and terms of my charges, my complaints procedure and possibly my professional indemnity insurance coverage.
  • Prior to accepting any payment, I would have had to consider the operation of the Money Laundering Regulations and, where appropriate, obtain and copy satisfactory evidence of the client’s name and address, and perform an electronic check to ensure that they were not politically exposed persons etc.
  • Following the meeting, as well as confirming any outstanding costs and other information, I would (amongst other things) have had to write to identify the client’s objectives, explain the issues involved and the options available, and agree the next steps to be taken. This would have been repeated, arguably after each and every attendance.

I’m sure I’ve missed some items off this list, but, even as it stands, it looks much more cumbersome and onerous than the dentist’s.

Do the vast swathes of paper and information sent to my clients make for a more fulfilling experience? Are such clients better protected and more informed than other members of the public? If the answer to these and other similar questions is “yes”, why should this be so when healthcare professionals are, after all, dealing with people’s physical wellbeing, where the risks and potential consequences are, in some cases, arguably much more serious/grave?

Furthermore, why are unregulated “legal consultants” and “will writers”, sometimes providing identical services, not scrutinised in the same way? Should the “act” not override the “actor”? What about accountants, estate agents and surveyors – why are they treated any differently?

If, on the other hand, the answers are “no”, why do solicitors find themselves in such an unenviable and, on its face, unfair position? Have their regulatory bodies not been as robust as others?

I suppose the upshot is this: does the (over) regulation of solicitors help or hinder the profession and its clients? I think I know the answer, but what do you think?


    Readers Comments

  • The Financial Services profession is no different, and is also going through very similar regulatory changes to ensure transparency and fairness to the consumer.

    Of course there are those who prefer to keep their head in the sand and moan about change but if the consumer is the ultimate beneficiary in a fairer, more transparent profession (yours or mine) that must be a good thing.

  • I can’t really comment on the financial services profession, but from my very limited knowledge I believe this industry is far less regulated than the law, while the new IFA regulatory changes are principally designed to protect the consumer against advice fuelled by commission payments.

    From my experience as a solicitor, the majority of regulation that we are subject to is pretty unnecessary. It consumes a lot of time, leading to an expense that has to be borne or passed on somehow. The regulation restricts you from being able to help clients and add value to their business, while the paperwork has no ultimate bearing on a customer’s experience.

    There are a multitude of non-client focused lawyers out there who regardless of what regualtion they comply with are still going to give the profession a bad name, while the rest of us are hampered by the bureaucracies of the overwieght regulatory bodies. In my mind, if you want to create great client relationships, regulation is largely meaningless and successful practitioners rely instead on their own business/common sense.

  • Joe Reevy says:

    I am a CA who used to be my firm’s compliance partner. My firm specialised in FSA registered businesses and also solicitors, so when I retired I had a pretty good knowlegde of the regulatory regime of each (I subsequently also worked in law firm management).

    This may not be up to date, but as of 2000, the CAs had the toughest regime, closely followed by the FSA regulated people. The regulation attaching to members of the Law Soc was by some way the lightest touch.

    It may all be different now, of course.


  • Thank you all for your comments.

    Whether or not other professions are subjected to as much regulation as Solicitors, the underlying question remains: does such regulation ENSURE (my emphasis) fairness and transparency and ultimately benefit the consumer/client as Andrew suggests?

    As with most things, there is “good” regulation and “bad” regulation. For example, mandatory professional indemnity insurance obviously protects clients, but do they really need to know the precise details? Is the fact that it is compulsory not enough? Similar arguments can be applied to most aspects of client care. How many clients actually bother to read the plethora of paperwork provided at the outset? Are those that do at a distinct advantage? I tend to agree with Jonathan that, in the majority of cases, the answer is no.

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