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Adapt or die: are solicitors becoming obsolete?

29 September 2016

Andrew Kidd explains why it is essential that the legal profession adapts to the way clients wish to consume legal services.  

Our skills, business models and ways of delivering legal advice have, traditionally, served us very well but they will rapidly become obsolete in the face of, for example, disruptive technology and the liberalisation of the market place.  

The challenge can be neatly encapsulated by the adage, "what got us here, won't get us there." We must, as one step of many, consider very carefully how we are collectively organised and regulated if the profession is to be able to meet these challenges successfully.

Considering the consequences  

The question is, do the Solicitors Regulation Authority's proposed changes on balance support or hinder our ability to address the challenges we face?  

The changes also throw up competing interests: on the one hand, attempting to make the provision of legal services more dynamic and flexible, and on the other hand, sufficiently protecting the client. We must be careful not to compromise our rich legal heritage, emulated the world over, in a rush to reform the delivery of legal services and make them fit for purpose in the decades to come. Unintended consequences arising through ill-thought-out reforms are, after all, in nobody's interest. 

Creating a two-tier market

A central point of the proposed reforms is that the consumer will have different protection depending on where the solicitor works.  

Presently, consumers have different protection depending on where they choose to get their legal advice, but going to a solicitor offers the 'gold standard' of protection.  

This is presently used as differentiation to market the profession, both here and oversees.  

Do we really want to create a two-tier market and allow solicitors working in an unregulated organisation not to be able to give advice with legal professional privilege, have no professional indemnity insurance or the ability to offer compensatory fund redress? Those same solicitors will not be subject to the same rules on conflict of interest which means that unregulated entities will be able to act in situations where regulated entities would be restricted. It also creates complexity for individual solicitors in unregulated entities who will have to comply with the SRA rules on conflicts and confidentiality, and leaves regulated firms at a disadvantage.  

They will not have the same supervisory requirements for newly qualified solicitors which would mean that newly qualified solicitors with no experience would be able to set up their own unregulated firms. 

Practitioners will agree that newly qualified solicitors generally welcome the support and guidance from those who us who are more experienced. This has the potential to seriously impact on the standing of the solicitor profession. Indeed, far from furthering the reforms ushered in by the Clementi proposals, the proposed reforms appear to be a departure from them.     

Not all bad

It must be said, however, that parts of the proposed reforms are to be welcomed. For example, the 2011 Handbook is clearly in need of updating and simplification of the solicitors' accounts rules, particularly eliminating the incidence of technical-only breaches, will reduce compliance costs. More generally, a less prescriptive approach to regulation and a desire to promote innovation should without doubt to be applauded.  

However, rather than a limited liberalisation of our rules and regulation, albeit elements of it are welcome, might we not serve the profession, and clients alike, by building on our success as a profession and better promoting the existing choice and qualities we offer?  

We must embrace the exciting opportunity to be at the forefront of change and emerge as a profession reinvigorated and ready to seek out new opportunities.  

Blurring the boundaries

At the very time when we ought to be offering clarity to clients to distinguish ourselves from our competitors and to offer them real alternatives so they can continue to make an informed choice, we appear to be blurring the lines and making it harder.  

If a loss of clarity results in a devaluing of the solicitor brand, will not the proposals affect consumer confidence and the standing of the solicitor profession in general?

We ran a survey of our members and the public over the summer.

  • 77 per cent think solicitor businesses should be regulated
  • 82 per cent think that regulatory changes are unnecessary
  • 97 per cent want their legal matters to be confidential

Read about our member and consumer survey on the consultation

Read our response to the SRA consultation

Tags: SRA | Pii | legal professional privilege | professional indemnity insurance

About the author

Andrew Kidd is a private client partner at Clintons in London. He sits on the Executive Committee of the Society of Conservative Lawyers. He has contributed to live and recorded BBC and Sky News broadcasts and regularly contributes to radio and print media including BBC Radio 2, 4 and 5, and the Telegraph, the Times, and the Guardian.
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