The new rules allowing solicitors to work from unregulated businesses open up several opportunities for solicitors – including working with or in competition with barristers, specialists have predicted.
However, they suggested that the other main regulatory freedom offered by the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s new Standards and Regulations – operating as a freelancer – may be less attractive, even though it could help make some services cheaper and more accessible.
In a blog on the new provisions, Julie Norris and Sian Jones – a partner and associate respectively in the regulatory department of City law firm Kingsley Napley – anticipated take-up for solicitors practising from the likes of property or architects businesses.
“Some solicitors in certain sectors with good professional networks may carve out opportunities to form mutually beneficial relationships with third parties that could facilitate and enhance their practice.
“Some may offer services from chambers to supplement and complement the skill set offered by barristers, or some may join forces with surveyors, accountants, banks or financial advisors. Others may choose to compete with direct access barristers instead.”
But the pair said the majority of solicitors may not find the opportunity to become a freelancer “particularly enticing given the exposure and risks involved”.
They explained: “The restriction on holding client money will be a barrier for many in transactional work who, for example, need to hold proceeds of sale and purchase funds. This will be likely to be the case until such a time as third-party managed accounts are more commonplace and clients become more familiar with them.”
But they said freelancing may be a good option for non-practising solicitors who were currently working on a consultancy basis and wanted to expand their scope of practice.
“Freelancers will certainly have lower overheads and potentially lower insurance premiums, depending upon the legal services they are providing, and this may mean that they can offer lower fees than [regulated sole practitioners] and SRA-authorised firms.
“However, clients may still prefer to instruct a professional with the improved safeguards offered by a regulated firm, such as insurance that meets the SRA’s minimum terms and conditions.”
The solicitors predicted that freelancers would not compete with traditional firms, and instead “begin to offer products that occupy other spaces in the market, differentiated by their ability to charge lower fees”.
To this extent at least, freelancers “might help to combat the often reported on public perception that legal advice is inaccessible and expensive”, they said.
The authors added that firms with freelancers on the other side of a transaction needed to be aware of the regulatory parameters within which freelancers providing reserved legal service need to practise.
“This is particularly important to avoid negligence claims arising out of transferring client money to a freelancer, which that individual is not entitled to hold.”
They suggested that firms should in future check the status of a solicitor before transferring funds.
“Those competing with freelancers must also be able to accurately explain the differences between them to clients so that prospective clients can make informed choices.”