Guest post by Crispin Passmore, strategy director at the Solicitors Regulation Authority
Four years ago, the SRA Handbook was 648 pages long. It contained all sorts of processes, restrictions and obligations that had grown up over many years.
Some of these processes cost those we regulate time and money to comply with and pay for. Others cost us, and therefore the profession, to process. Many added little in making sure that the priorities of regulation – the rule of law and public protection – were supported.
At the same time the rulebook restricted how solicitors could practise. There had been small relaxations from a prescriptive model based on traditional lawyer partnerships. But fundamentally practising law was unchanged – we could even call it artisanal and craft-based.
Despite the advent of alterative business structures, the rise of global law and some minor leeway on where solicitors could practise, legal services remained inflexible. The sector was not rising to the challenge of fully meeting the public and business appetite for good-quality, professional legal advice.
Over the last four years, a programme of reform has been running to offer a new model of legal regulation. Two hundred pages of outdated rules and restrictions have been removed.
The separate business rule has been reformed – it was always incongruous that the only people that could not own and run an unregulated will writing business were solicitors.
Multi-disciplinary practices were allowed, so not only do we now have the large accountancy firms investing in legal services to meet their clients’ needs, but we have local legal and other professional services combining to meet their clients’ needs holistically.
We allowed traditional law firms to employ accountants to deliver their services holistically too – though few if any have as-yet chosen to take this path to competing with the emergent accountancy legal services.
Freeing up the profession
These reforms took us only so far. Restrictions still existed that could not be justified as proportionate and targeted.
It was odd that a solicitor could avoid the rules by giving up their practising certificate and calling themselves a non-practising solicitor. It was odd that a solicitor could give their expertise on a telephone advice line but could not draft the letter for a client, instead passing it to an unqualified colleague to do. And much more besides.
Since 2015, we have been working to rewrite the rule book. New codes of conduct are the most significant change.
There will be one code that sets the same high professional standards for individual solicitors wherever and however they practise. And there will be another code that sets the expectations for regulated firms to ensure that they have appropriate systems and standards to secure the delivery of professional legal services.
This sharp focus on standards enables further changes – changes that free up solicitors to offer their expertise, excellence and ethics to more people through a far wider range of businesses or on their own. Standards remain high and regulation robust; fit for purpose in a modern, competitive economy.
These reforms should go some way to increasing the supply of solicitors to the public and small business. We know just how much they value the solicitor brand. And high professional standards will be protected.
This is good for solicitors, good for UK business and good for the public. Proportionate and flexible regulation that inspires confidence from the public helps everyone.
It will make England and Wales the best place to site a global legal business; encourage new opportunities for tech companies, other professional services and consumer-focused business to enter the legal market; allow solicitors to offer their expertise more widely; and, equally importantly, allow existing law firms the chance to innovate, compete and thrive in a changing legal market.
But this will not happen simply by wishing.
Now, with new codes of conduct and simplified rules published, is the time for solicitors and law firms to evaluate their options.
How can they take advantage of the new flexibilities? How can they grow their businesses? These are decisions for each solicitor and firm, but there are things to do here at the SRA too.
Along with our changes to the regulatory framework comes our new enforcement strategy and publication of our decision-making guidance and topic guides. We receive more 12,000 complaints or allegations about solicitors and firms each year, but only a matter of hundreds ever lead to action.
How can we improve how we make sure our efforts are applied in the right areas with the right results? And how can we better target supervisory activity to ensure that we spot potential wrongdoing quickly and maintain public and professional confidence by dealing with it appropriately?
Just as solicitors and law firms face up to new challenges we are too: modernising and investing to ensure that we are the regulator of choice for legal business, the professional and public alike.