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2016 - Changes and Challenges

So just what will 2016 be remembered for? The historic vote by the people of the United Kingdom to effect change by voting out of the EU? Or maybe the spate of high profile celebrity deaths that seemed to proliferate throughout?

What the general public won’t know about is all the changes and challenges that the Solicitor’s Profession saw and adapted to…after all, the maxim of the Profession in the 21st Century is definitely “Change is the only constant.” This article is just a reminder about what some of those changes and challenges were…

Let’s start with Criminal Lawyers, and the U-turn that happened with the 2014 Criminal Tender. For some Criminal Law firms, preparation to secure a tender for their firms, or to be part of a “Delivery Partnership” to achieve a tender took years, with long hours of poring over documents, ensuring all the tender criteria could be met, endless meetings, and proof reading time after time, especially as the Legal Aid Agency kept changing criteria all through the process.

And then it all came to an abrupt halt, and all those Criminal Law firms, whether they had submitted under the tender or not, were awarded a contract extension.  And for many, that signalled a “throttling down” to concentrate on what they do best; serve the law of the land.

But that was a false hope, and the spectre of a second tender reared itself from the ashes of the first, although the criteria for this one was not as onerous as the original. Even so, the Legal Aid Agency took the same approach and tinkered with the tender process and criteria, resulting in firms having to provide “verification information” to support their tender submission right up until 23:59 on the 12th December 2016

And while the Legal Aid Agency distracted those Criminal Law Firms, the SRA decided to join in and change something that hadn’t changed for a number of years – the Solicitor’s Continuing Professional Development (CPD) scheme.

From November the 1st 2016, all solicitors were subject to the SRA Competence Framework, the replacement for the CPD scheme. For this the SRA produced a plethora of supporting documentation, including the Threshold Standard, the Statement of Solicitor Competence and the Statement of Legal Knowledge. While these are useful documents insofar as being a reference source go, unhelpfully they provide no information that can be used for Family/Matrimonial specific competences, and only apply to solicitors…when the SRA expect all personnel working in a solicitors firm to be competent.

The process to maintain competence is new for most solicitors, who will now have to “reflect” on their competence and identify their personal learning needs, and ensure that they are met in an appropriate way, be it by personal research, webinars, courses, articles or any mechanism that can deliver the appropriate learning. And to document it all…

2016 was also a year when the SRA launched other major consultations that could have far reaching consequences for the future of the profession…

The first consultation (which is now in its second phase) was about the qualification for future solicitors, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). The consultation suggests a change to the qualification methodology for solicitors, with one of its more controversial suggestions being a lack of the need for a degree to become a solicitor. The Law Society initially opposed the SQE during the initial consultation due to a perceived dilution of the qualification, but their most recent response appears to be more supportive of the SRA proposals.

Perhaps the biggest planned change which has been consulted on by the SRA is the “Looking to the Future - flexibility and public protection” consultation. The main proposals within this consultation were to split the code of conduct into 3 parts; a code of conduct for a regulated business, a code of conduct for an individual solicitor, and the separation of the accounts rules from the code of conduct.

The proposal that has caused the most controversy in this consultation was the separation of the code of conduct between the firm and the individual. The SRA want to bring this in to allow individual solicitors to work outside of a regulated firm providing unreserved legal activities. The SRA hope that this will promote increased competition for legal services…

There were lots of smaller changes in 2016, but one challenge that continued to be a major problem for solicitor firms was the endless digital assault and fraud being perpetrated upon them by criminals. This was both high and low tech; high tech where email servers were hacked and criminals impersonated solicitors to clients and instructed them to pay large transactions into the wrong account; and low tech in that criminals impersonated solicitors and wrote to or telephoned clients to scam them out of money. Indeed, this risk was highlighted in the SRA Risk Outlook 2016/17, published in June 2016.

There was a concerted response to this threat by some Professional Indemnity Insurance providers asking detailed questions (with one introducing a 14 page questionnaire) of how firms protect themselves from fraud and cyberattack. The measures that were expected for firms to take were around IT security, fraud checks, and background checks on staff amongst others. The scale of this problem is massive, with the value of funds lost to cyber fraud at law firms in the six months from November 2015 to April 2016 totaling a staggering £2.53 million, up 40% from £1.81 million in the same period a year earlier. And that figure is expected to rise in 2017…

 

The cpm21 year…

 

For our part, we supported firms as we always have with our services, for example preparing and supporting some hundreds of firms for their Annual Lexcel or SQM audits, and training some thousand plus solicitors and support staff on a variety of subjects, but in particular those changes such as the SRA Competence Framework. The training was provided with the usual selection of precedent forms and documents (such as new learning and development policies) to help firms implement the necessary changes…

 

As well as this, we helped firms develop new compliance plans and policies to ensure they remain complaint and adapt to the changes necessary to continue trading. An example of this was a new Anti-Fraud policy developed in response to the trading environment and demands of Professional Indemnity Insurance providers. This was provided with training, and usually was complemented by a Cyber-essentials compliant Information and Data Security Policy, again provided with training where needed…

 

Our Professional Skills Course (PSC) saw two new cohorts of Trainee Solicitors provided with the mandatory training they need to complete before becoming authorised…

 

We also conducted over a thousand file reviews for firms who used our outsourced file review service, which features individual feedback and corrective action monitoring which has resulted in most firms seeing an improvement in the quality of their file management and a reduction in “justified” complaints, or complaints where the Legal Ombudsman ordered the firm to compensate the client…

For criminal solicitors, we supported the most recent Legal Aid Agency tender by providing advice and suggestions along with Supervisor training for those that needed it. This included working with some firms on their tender verification documents right up until the literal “eleventh hour” (23:56 in fact) to ensure they were in time for the firm to be included on the 1st April 2017 Police Station rota…

We launched a new service for firms with our Outsourced Complaints Handling, where a firm could pass us a complaint and its associated file, and we would check the complaint against the file contents and the chronology, and then provide a suggested response to the firm to consider. This service was particularly well received as it helped save a lot of time for some complaints officers, who are normally senior fee earners who don’t normally enjoy the luxury of time...

And of course, we couldn’t leave the SRA out of the mix. We supported some  “lucky” firms who had unannounced or limited notice SRA inspections. These were interesting in that the SRA decided to give as little information to the firms as possible prior to the audit regarding what the audit was about, and took the same approach when the SRA auditor arrived on site. All firms were told at the end of the audit was “there were no issues,” and not what had prompted the audit originally…

So in summary, 2016 was a busy year for both us and the profession, and 2017 already looks to be as challenging, with the introduction of the Criminal Finances Bill 2016 to be introduced from the 1st of April 2017, a potential consultation by the Legal Aid Agency as a prelude to a new Family Tender in 2018, and the possibility of a new SRA Code of Conduct. And no doubt there will be other challenges ahead…

We began this article in its first paragraph by saying that “Change is the only constant” for Solicitor’s Firms in the 21st Century, but actually, on reflection, that’s not strictly true.

There is one other constant, and that is us, cpm21.

You can rest easy in the knowledge that we will still be there for our clients and other businesses who need us in 2017. We will continue to provide support to help navigate the complexities of the legal profession and the changes and challenges to come.

The second constant.

Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year from the cpm21 team, we’ll see you in 2017.