Leading HR company Croner has become the first unregulated business allowed to employ practising solicitors who can advise its clients.
The move, facilitated by a waiver issued by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) as part of its innovation ‘safe space’, will also allow Croner to offer training contracts.
The SRA’s plan to allow solicitors to provide unreserved legal work from firms it does not regulate has been controversial, with the Law Society vehemently opposed, and the likes of the Legal Ombudsman and Legal Services Consumer Panel also concerned.
At present, solicitors can only provide advice on unreserved matters from unregulated businesses if they give up their practising certificates and do not hold themselves out as solicitors.
Employed solicitors with practising certificates are not allowed to advise anyone other than their employer, although there is a small exemption for those providing telephone advice to third-party customers.
In addition to HR, Croner offers health & safety, tax and “reward” advice to companies. It claims to have a 90% success rate in employment tribunals.
It currently employs three solicitors among others to offer advice on its telephone helpline, and two to act for clients in tribunal cases. Appearing before tribunals is unregulated work but the solicitors have to do this as ‘consultants’.
Aside from being able to use their professional title and being subject to SRA regulation, the main changes brought about by the SRA waiver are that the helpline solicitors will also be able to provide written advice and Croner can take on trainee solicitors and provide them with both contentious and non-contentious experience. It is to hire four this summer.
Andrew Willis, head of legal & advisory at Croner, told Legal Futures that, for what it wanted, it would have been unduly onerous to become an alternative business structure
Though it was becoming less frequent as the legal market opened up, he said the company had lost clients who wanted to have a practising solicitor advising them; similarly, while Croner solicitors could tell clients about their qualification, explaining that they could not hold themselves out as solicitors was “not an easy conversation”.
“We’ve got qualified people and it’ll be great to present them as such. We will be able to offer our services in a new way to clients and take advantage of the strengths of our solicitor team,” he said, predicting that the team would grow significantly in the coming years.
Though it was a “fairly lengthy process” as the SRA checked Croner out, Mr Willis said the regulator had been “very helpful and supportive” with what the company wanted to achieve.
The SRA is to publish all waivers to ensure the process is fair and transparent, but the details of this have not yet been ironed out.
But to be granted the waiver, Croner had to demonstrate that its plan was compatible with the regulatory objectives, including protecting and promoting the public interest, and improving access to justice.