There are significant benefits to adopting the Law Society’s practice excellence standard. Now might be a good time to change.
The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) has announced its tender timetable for new civil and family contracts starting in April 2018 and it has reminded applicants that they will need either a valid Specialist Quality Mark (SQM) or Lexcel accreditation.1Headline intentions for civil legal aid contracts from April 2018, 20 January 2017.
In practice, you will need an up-to-date quality standard for the validation process before the new contracts actually start. We do not have a firm date for this yet, but the LAA has indicated these checks will be carried out between January and March 2018.
Many practices are switching from the SQM to Lexcel as they see the advantages of a standard that is more closely aligned to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Code of Conduct. You do have to pay for more audits with Lexcel, as you have an annual maintenance visit with a full assessment every three years (Lexcel v6 Scheme Rules 7.4–7.5), but this keeps you on your toes and makes each assessment less of an ordeal. Assessment fees may be a bit higher, but you might see your professional indemnity insurance costs fall as your procedures improve. Starting now, most practices would be able to make the switch in good time.
Risk management is not covered at all in the SQM but merits a whole section in Lexcel v6
. Having an effective approach to risk management must be one of the strongest reasons to switch to Lexcel accreditation. You need to think through a wide range of activities in order to comply, but it is worthwhile as there are bound to be benefits in terms of business planning, client care and sustainability. Not-for-profit organisations will have a head start, as trustees are required by the Charity Commission to provide a risk management plan as part of their annual report and accounts.
Lexcel requires practices to draw up lists of work they will and will not undertake within the various categories of law offered (Lexcel v6 5.5). Risk then needs to be considered and recorded at the start and at the conclusion of every matter or case, and borne in mind throughout (Lexcel v6 5.12). The ways you manage risk on a day-to-day basis are to be found in your detailed procedures for accepting instructions and running files. It is always worth reviewing these as you may well find ways of doing things more efficiently, especially if you consider how your IT can be used to best effect (see Lexcel v6 3.1).
Assessment fees for Lexcel may be a bit higher, but you might see your professional indemnity insurance costs fall as your procedures improve.
Supervision is covered as part of the risk management section. On one hand, it sets a higher standard in that all personnel – not just fee earners – must be actively supervised (see Lexcel v6 5.9). However, in relation to file reviews, you have much more flexibility about how many files you review and how often you do so (see Lexcel v6 5.11).
Having a corporate social responsibility policy is optional (Lexcel v6 1.4). Many legal aid practices are active in their local communities, supporting Law Centres, Citizens Advice and other charities, or operate ‘green’ policies in relation to purchasing and use of energy. You may want to consider joining the Legal Sustainability Alliance or donating unclaimed client account balances to the Access to Justice Foundation
as part of your policy. Lexcel accreditation is an opportunity to ensure that these initiatives are recognised.
A business continuity plan is not in the SQM, but is a requirement under clause 7 of the LAA’s Standard Contract and the SRA Code of Conduct. It is useful to consider a range of options, including communications and reputational damage limitation strategies. If the worst were to happen, it is essential to be able to pull a plan off the shelf rather than having to start from scratch in a crisis.
The SQM does not require cash flow monitoring, but Lexcel does (Lexcel v6 2.2f). This makes a lot of sense, as so many organisations fail because they simply run out of cash and become insolvent. Lexcel imposes more requirements than the SQM in relation to personnel management, but these are all extremely useful (see Lexcel v6 section 4).
Bear in mind that clients need to give their consent should their file be assessed as part of Lexcel accreditation. Legal aid regulations allow the LAA (and its agents) access to their file as part of the legal aid application process. You will need to change your client care letter so that clients are aware that their file might fall into a sample for external quality assurance assessment and that they can object if they wish.