Some observers of the legal profession comment that it is a ‘hardy’ profession, and this observation would be correct, writes Bhavni Shah. In recent years, providers of legal services have survived the tough economic climate and dealt with other fundamental connected issues (i.e. the large constriction on funding, increased competition and spiralling costs). However, the profession continues to face uncertainty which challenges its resilience, in the form of Alternative Business Structures (ABSs), LASPO (Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders Act) and a new approach to regulation, to name but a few.
Therefore, how do the providers of legal services ensure their long term sustainability?
At times like this, it is natural to channel all resources towards tackling the strategic challenges to the business. Although a wholly appropriate strategy, it is equally important that the business also ensures that it has a robust approach to fundamental business principles as well, thereby ensuring longevity. To that effect, it is paramount that the delivery of a ‘quality’ service does not fall off the radar for the owners and staff within the business. After all, without satisfied clients will there be a business in operation at all.
‘Quality’ is a familiar concept for most legal services providers as it touches various aspects of a legal business in the form of quality of advice (individual competence), quality of service (client care) and quality business systems & procedures (practice management). Ensuring that the business continues to focus on these internal considerations is of utmost importance.
However, in the last couple of years there has been a greater focus on ‘quality’ amongst a rather unfamiliar area for legal services providers, regulation. ‘Quality’ is a feature of the new regulatory framework and a key consideration for the Legal Service Board (LSB), who through the Legal Services Act 2007 is tasked with maintaining and developing standards in the profession.
In July 2010, the LSB commissioned research from the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) to understand the consumer’s perspective of quality in legal services. This led to the publication of the report Quality in Legal Services by the LSCP in November 2010. One of the key findings from this report was that consumers believed that lawyers were subjected to more active regulation than in practice and therefore consumers relied on regulators to ensure quality. The findings of this report have directed the LSB’s approach to tackling quality risks in regulation and culminated in the consultation (Approaches to Quality, March 2012, closing date June 2012.
The consultation paper provides:
‘…an overview of quality risks within legal services, and suggests existing or alternate regulatory interventions which might be usefully deployed to better assure quality.’
In releasing the consultation paper, the LSB has outlined its expectations that the regulators take steps to ensure quality for consumers, through their regulatory approach. Thereby, indicating that regulators should review and implement new/strengthen existing quality indicators and controls within the regulatory framework. The consultation paper identifies the following (amongst other) areas for consideration by regulatory intervention:
- Entry and authorisation requirements
- Continued Professional Development
- Accredited Quality Marks
- Data i.e. complaints
- Comparison Websites, client led evaluations
- Consumer Satisfaction Feedback
Outside of the consultation, we have already seen that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and Legal Ombudsman (LeO) have started to make steps towards addressing some of the areas identified above i.e. through the Legal Education & Training Review, publishing Solicitors Disciplinary records and publishing Complaints Data.
The steps taken towards ensuring transparency by these organisations will inevitably act as a natural filter and have an impact on who consumers choose to buy their legal services from. With a greater focus on regulators providing quality information to consumers it may be perceived by some as adding to the uncertainty and viability for legal businesses. However, it is clear that ensuring quality of legal services for consumers is a priority for the SRA and therefore, it is vital that ‘Quality’ is embraced and firmly placed on the agenda for all legal services providers.
By ensuring that good quality of advice, service and management is provided across the business, you will ensure that you are able to give your business the best possible opportunity for survival in such uncertain times.