Making the grade: examining accreditation schemes

first_img The Law Society’s 11 practice area accreditation schemes are undergoing a thorough review.The schemes cover immigration and asylum, criminal litigation, mediation, clinical negligence, personal injury, planning, children, family, advanced family, family mediation and mental health. When the Society split its regulatory and representative roles, all the accreditation schemes went to the Solicitors Regulation Authority.In 2009, however, the Society took the voluntary schemes back under its wing, arguing that they were a reputational issue. While membership is required by the Legal Services Commission in areas such as crime, mental health and children, it is still up to solicitors whether they choose to do publicly funded work. The SRA administers the higher rights, police station representation and insolvency schemes as they are compulsory and therefore deemed to be a regulatory issue.Maureen Miller, head of membership development, says: ‘Once we had set up a robust governance programme, we appointed chief assessors to review the schemes covering crime, immigration, family, children and mental health and ensure the content is relevant and up to date.’The review is due to be completed by the end of June, with the assessors recommending how the schemes can be enhanced, for instance by introducing a career-development, tiered approach. Miller says they will also be setting down criteria for establishing schemes and considering new specialist areas such as private client. Stronger position People and culture Seeking accreditation takes time and resources, so how do you assess the cost/benefit relationship? There is a price to be paid in terms of accreditation and (possibly) consultancy fees, says Guise, but otherwise there are only ‘upsides’. ‘The friction of bringing about cultural change in a firm which does not have Lexcel is not to be underestimated. That’s why I got my firm accredited in 2003 when I set up, so there was no backsliding from subsequent joiners.’ Marsh has no doubts about CQS: ‘Every single firm is running a business, so you have to prioritise. If the market wants you to have a certain level of credibility through a scheme like this then you sit down and do it.’ He is concerned that consultants are quoting around £2,500 to get a firm CQS accreditation. ‘It is the fear factor,’ he says. ‘A small firm might do that but these companies are exploiting their anxiety. Generally, you don’t need to pay for advice. You need to understand your business and fill out a form.’ One significant benefit could be a reduction in professional indemnity insurance premiums. All the schemes are talking to brokers and insurers about what would make the accreditation more attractive to them. Accreditation in particular work areas is not a factor which, on its own, will ‘make or break’ a decision to underwrite, says John Kunzler, senior product manager with PI underwriters Travelers. Even so, it is generally viewed positively, as are quality systems, when taken as part of a complete picture of what a firm is doing. He adds: ‘We are always very interested in hearing about actions that solicitors take to manage risk proactively. However, there is not yet any data of which we are aware which indicates that reaching a specific standard and agreeing to adopt certain processes makes a firm with an accreditation a superior risk over a well-managed firm without such an accreditation.’ He says the CQS may allocate supervisory responsibility more clearly and improve individual competence, which may in turn help prevent process errors. ‘However, from information available in the assigned risks pool, a good number of the conveyancing claims that have occurred over the last few years appear to be caused by organised crime gangs conducting large-scale fraud operations,’ he says. ‘Identity theft of professionals to set up fake law firms also seems to be on the increase. ‘The prevention of fraud is an area upon which effort needs to focus, which could include adding anti-fraud measures and regular review of those measures as part of any scheme.’ Marsh says insurers ‘caught a bad cold’ by not being able to evaluate properly the risk of insuring individual firms. ‘CQS is aimed at the sorts of risks they are anxious about and it will help them evaluate whether the firm is one they want to insure,’ he maintains. ‘One key measure is that anybody within the firm connected with the conveyancing, including the accounts department and all partners, has to be CRB [Criminal Records Bureau] checked.’ The CQS has been welcomed by the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML). Marsh says it is too early to say whether lenders will start requiring panel firms to have CQS. ‘Lenders have made it clear that they want some “wriggle room” because there will be certain firms with such a high reputation or with whom they already have a special relationship where they will feel it is not necessary,’ he explains. ‘For the others, it will be a case of needing a good reason why they aren’t accredited.’ CML spokesman Bernard Clarke says it would like to see a ‘healthy take-up’ of the scheme. ‘We hope it will provide reassurance and reinforce confidence and that lenders will come to regard it as a prerequisite for admission to their panels.’ With increasing emphasis on accreditation schemes, could they have an impact on diversity? ‘We are very alive to this risk,’ says Linda Lee, ‘which is why we are running equality impact assessments on all our accreditation schemes.’ So, with the profession increasingly focusing on the value of schemes in boosting firms’ appeal, the key now will be to increase public awareness. How soon before a character in a soap is asking if their conveyancer is CQS-accredited? Education and training review The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and the Institute of Legal Executives Professional Standards (IPS) are working together to undertake a fundamental review of the legal education and training requirements of individuals and entities delivering legal services. The review will commence next month and is expected to report by November 2012. The scope of the review is wide ranging, and covers accreditation, alongside education, training, qualifications, and regulation. It will examine regulated and non-regulated legal services. Recommendations will cover the following areas: Some firms seeking recognition of their standards have chosen either ISO9000 or Investors in People (IIP), although some have all three badges to their names. So, how do you choose? Warner says: ‘Lexcel is sector-specific but it has a low profile and lack of client recognition. However, both it and ISO9000 will improve a firm’s procedures. ‘IIP will unlock new opportunities by focusing more on people and culture, which is where lawyers need to focus to create more business agility.’ Jarratt views the other standards as both complementary and as competition. ‘It is not just about collecting badges,’ she says. ‘IIP is very people management-focused but it is a standard which can be applied for by any industry – ours is focused on law firms and in-house legal departments.’ Interest in Lexcel is certainly picking up, says Guise. ‘Interestingly, the foundation of QualitySolicitors’ claim to be “quality” is the insistence that all member firms are Lexcel-accredited or commit to becoming so. In other words, they are piggybacking on the Society’s 13 years of investment in the mark.’ APIL set up its accreditation scheme, which recognises different levels of competency from senior litigator to senior fellow, in 1999. About 30% of its 5,000 members are accredited, along with about 250 firms. ‘We are focusing on increasing public awareness of the scheme so it becomes a recognisable, trusted quality mark,’ says chief executive Denise Kitchener. ‘We are also developing competency standards which will offer benchmarks for firms in the high street.’ Firms use the mark as part of their branding, she says. ‘Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to find specialist help. This is an extra, independent stamp which offers reassurance through rigorous assessment.’ Savvy clientsResolution has also found potential clients becoming more savvy in searching for specialists. Two-thirds of those who search its website for a solicitor go on to search for a specialist in a raft of areas, including adoption, child abduction, small and big money cases, cohabitation and a new category of forced marriage. Some 1,500 of its 5,500 members are accredited. Standards director Jacqui Jackson says the scheme encourages career progression by allowing two years’-qualified practitioners to do part one of the requirements, completing the rest of the assignments once they reach the required minimum of five years’ post-qualified experience. Those fully accredited get a 15% uplift in legal aid rates for exceptional cases that fall outside the fixed fee. Jackson says Resolution is considering creating an accreditation scheme in advocacy skills, but is waiting to see what happens with the scheme being piloted for criminal lawyers. It is also revamping its accreditation scheme for independent financial advisers: ‘We set that up because we found the standard was extremely variable. We didn’t get it quite right so we are hoping to relaunch it with a whole new set of standards next month.’ Resolution also runs a mediation accreditation scheme, with 50 of its 346 trained mediators achieving the badge. Many of the others are working towards it but have yet to undertake sufficient mediations to prepare their portfolio. Mediations are likely to increase substantially following a new emphasis on mediation by the government. The new pre-action protocol will require couples seeking to contest the terms of their separation to attend a mediation awareness session before they can go to court, unless there are domestic violence or child protection issues. Schemes under the microscope What it’s worth A campaign to raise public awareness of the Law Society’s accreditation schemes and their value in helping people choose firms or specialist practitioners in increasingly competitive markets will be launched shortly. There is growing interest within the profession about the schemes. The new Conveyancing Quality Scheme (CQS), which was launched in January, has already attracted more than 660 applications; nearly 1,000 practices are now accredited with Lexcel; and more than 15,000 legal professionals are members of the 11 practice area schemes, which are undergoing a major review (see box). The next step, says Maureen Miller, the Society’s head of membership development, is to raise the schemes’ profile with the public. ‘There was a storyline in Coronation Street last year involving a family dispute, when one of those involved said they needed to employ a family solicitor who was “on the Law Society’s accreditation panel” – that is the kind of recognition you need.’ Representative groups such as the family lawyers organisation Resolution and the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) also have accreditation schemes. So, to what extent are firms using such schemes as part of their branding efforts and how important will they become when legal markets open up later in the year? The solicitor brand itself is incredibly strong, stresses Law Society president Linda Lee: ‘However, consumers are becoming more demanding and are focusing on differentiation and specialism. Accreditation schemes provide solicitors with another tool to set themselves apart from other providers and harness the very considerable power of the Law Society brand.’ Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist Pressure to introduce accreditation schemes, Lee says, follows demands from public sector purchasers of legal services, for instance in family law, and market developments, hence the CQS: ‘What they have in common is putting the accredited solicitor into a stronger position to win business.’ ‘Members of the public struggle to compare services,’ says Peter Warner, a specialist in regulation and compliance with Inpractice UK consultancy. ‘So the more apparently relevant boxes a firm can tick, the more attractive they will be to potential customers. ‘Being able to tick the accreditation boxes when tendering for business will also be vital, as new entrants to the legal market won’t be put off by the need to get these accreditations – they will just do it as a routine part of business. ‘However, lawyers with well informed and satisfied clients won’t lose them to another firm just because it has more accreditations.’ Tony Guise, of Guise Solicitors, agrees: ‘Accreditation is not the be all and end all to winning work. However, it goes positively into the mix if one is pitching for institutional work, which should increasingly be targeted by solicitors, as limited added-value work is siphoned off by alternative business structures.’ The CQS has certainly had an encouraging start. Paul Marsh, of Surrey-based Downs Solicitors and past president of the Law Society, is a member of the CQS project board: ‘Some doubting Thomases thought this wouldn’t take off but we have had nearly 700 applications in the first three months.’ So far, 29 firms have been accredited. It is proving a steep learning curve for some – the operations team has found applications that have not been completely filled in, for example, with key information missing. Firms will have to reapply annually. ‘We have designed the scheme so it maintains its quality and standards,’ Marsh explains. When it comes to Lexcel, Francis Dingwall, a partner with professional indemnity and regulatory solicitors Legal Risk, says it is a valuable threshold for good practice management. Beyond that, it is a ‘starting point, not an end point’, he notes, adding: ‘There are firms with Lexcel that are good and bad and it can give a false sense of security. ‘There have been some major mortgage frauds and major negligence at Lexcel-accredited firms. You need to look at the substance, beyond the procedures, and Lexcel does not, in itself, do that for you.’ Lexcel manager Clare Jarratt says work is under way on an updated version, which will take into account the views of stakeholders (such as personal injury insurers, brokers, banks and in-house legal teams) on what would make it more attractive to them. Jarratt says the numbers accredited or applying are encouraging. Accredited firms include a quarter of the top-100 firms, with 40% being sole practitioners to 10-partner firms. The 150 accredited in-house teams range from one to 40 fee-earners. ‘It is not a simple thing for practices to achieve,’ she says. ‘The fact that we have roughly 1,000 practices in England and Wales and a handful overseas, which are being annually assessed for an optional scheme in which they are investing significant time and resources, is a very good achievement. ‘We also have a 95% retention rate, with some firms maintaining the Lexcel badge since the scheme was launched in 1998.’International firms and the international offices of UK firms have been able to seek accreditation since last year. ‘As international markets develop,’ Jarratt says, ‘quality assurance, accreditation and best practice across borders are going to be increasingly hot topics – how do you work with a firm if you have concerns about client service, process or risk management?’ The legal skills, knowledge and experience demanded from different kinds of lawyers, and other emerging roles in diverse, future legal services entities. The education and training system(s) required to deliver high-quality, competitive legal services and high ethical standards of practice for lawyers and legal services entities. Qualification routes that are responsive to emerging needs. An education and training system(s) that is responsive to different career pathways, promotes mobility and transferability between branches of the profession, and enables flexible, ongoing education and training options. The extent to which (if at all) formal regulation of legal education and training should be extended to include groups other than those currently regulated by the SRA, BSB, IPS and other approved regulators. Recommendations specific to the Legal Services Board, Approved Regulators and other relevant bodies from this review supported by an analysis against the better regulation principles. Sole practitioner Martin Elliott was one of the first to be accredited under the Conveyancing Quality Scheme. He plans to use it as an integral part of the branding of his firm Martin Elliott & Co Solicitors, which he set up in Colchester, Essex, 18 years ago, specialising in conveyancing, wills and probate.Already Lexcel-accredited for the last six years, he will be adding the CQS logo to his notepaper and website. ‘I am a great believer in it,’ he says. ‘As a small firm, it helps prove our credibility, which will be even more important when new entrants come into the market later in the year.’He has applied to two lenders’ panels, flagging up the accreditation. ‘It is early days but I hope the scheme will prove a real help for sole practitioners and small firms who have been badly hit by the way lenders are reducing their panels.’It took about a month to prepare the application. He used a consultant to get started with Lexcel but did the CQS application himself. ‘If you aren’t Lexcel-accredited, it might be useful to have help on the practice management side,’ he says. It is too soon to know if it will lead to a reduction in PII premiums, he says, adding: ‘Lexcel didn’t reduce our premium but it meant we were insurable when other small firms were struggling to get quotes.’He is optimistic that the CQS will prove a ‘robust’ scheme. ‘You have to send in client feedback every six months and I think anyone submitting poor feedback will be picked up pretty quickly. Once it gains critical mass, I think it will prove really valuable.’last_img