Consumers and businesses believe that drafting “legally accurate and effective” documents is a more important quality of a competent solicitor than following professional rules, a major study has found.
The study, carried out by consultants BMG Research for the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), involved 503 individual consumers, 204 businesses and 1,070 solicitors.
A majority of solicitors said “acting in accordance with legal and regulatory requirements and the SRA codes of conduct” was the most important feature of being a competent solicitor.
The research asked the three groups to rank, in order of priority, elements of the SRA’s new draft competence statement.
Consumers and businesses both put complying with SRA rules in third place. Solicitors put “working within the limits of their knowledge, competence and available supervision” in second place, while consumers ranked this 18th and firms 15th.
For businesses, the second most important feature was “keeping, using and maintaining accurate, complete and clear records”.
Consumers ranked “maintaining sufficient competence and legal knowledge to practise effectively” in second place. Firms also rated this highly – in fourth place.
“Communicating clearly and effectively, orally and in writing” was ranked fourth by consumers, fifth by businesses and only eighth by solicitors.
The BMG report found that while the draft competence statement as a whole won high approval ratings from the three groups, there were “strands of dissent” among practitioners, including those who expressed “fundamental doubt” over whether a “valid and workable” statement was possible.
Julie Brannan, director of education and training at the SRA, told Legal Futures that although the draft competence statement did not rank elements in order of importance, the different views were interesting.
She said consumers expected solicitors to have boundaries to their knowledge and to seek advice from colleagues where necessary.
“All three groups gave a high level of importance to ethics, and we very consciously put it as the first competence to reflect that.”
Ms Brannan said there was a strand of opinion which questioned the worth of statements which appeared generic and obvious, but she argued that the fact there was much people agreed about was a strength rather than a weakness.
She said that the competence statement needed to be “embedded in the consciousness of the profession”, while consumers needed to be “aware of it and understand it”.
Ms Brannan said the statement needed not only to operate on an “ongoing basis” for solicitors already in the profession but to be applied “at the point of qualification” for those entering the profession. “Our twin aims are to better ensure standards while allowing greater flexibility on how they might be reached,” she added.