Looking after your supervising solicitor
Supervising solicitors in not-for-profit agencies play a vital part in maintaining standards and, as such, carry a lot of responsibility, so it’s important to ensure they’re well supported in the role.
Under transitional provisions in the Legal Services Act (LSA) 2007, not-for-profit (NfP) practices are not authorised as entities by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), although the solicitors within them are regulated individually and have to comply with the SRA Code of Conduct provisions for in-house practitioners (see also, in particular, SRA Practice Framework Rules 2011 r4.16).
Employed solicitors have specific responsibilities in respect of ‘reserved legal activities’, as defined in LSA 2007 Pt 3. These include the exercise of a right of audience, the conduct of litigation and the administration of oaths. They are personally responsible for ensuring that any litigation or advocacy undertaken within their team or department is conducted in accordance with the Code of Conduct and with a view to ensuring the outcomes set out in the SRA Handbook. Agencies offering general advice and other services alongside legal advice and representation need to distinguish and ringfence responsibilities appropriately.
The SRA rules
In order to conduct litigation, NfP agencies need a solicitor who is ‘qualified to supervise’ under SRA Practice Framework rr12.1 and 12.2 (ie a solicitor who has held a practising certificate for 36 months within the last 10 years and has completed training specified by the SRA). The supervising solicitor is also responsible for ensuring that the SRA Accounts Rules are complied with, if client money is held.
So although NfP agencies do not have to appoint a compliance officer for legal practice (COLP) or compliance officer for finance and administration (COFA) under the transitional provisions, it can be helpful to see the responsibilities of a ‘supervising solicitor’ as similar to those roles in some respects.
Law Centres and other NfP agencies operate under a variety of management structures, and implement management and supervision requirements in different ways. Each agency can, and should, devise a system that works for it, taking into account the duties imposed on the supervising solicitor. If work at an agency falls seriously short of professional standards, the supervising solicitor could be disciplined by the SRA.
A three-year-qualified solicitor may have no experience of management or developing administrative systems. He or she may not understand all the SRA’s requirements and how to implement them, as it is likely that he or she will have relied on a head of department or partner for guidance. Colleagues and trustees need to be aware of this, and ensure that their colleague can discharge the role effectively and provide suitable support.
Most supervising solicitors will be supervisors in a legal aid category of law. They may also have colleagues who qualify as legal aid supervisors in other subjects. This will help the supervising solicitor as responsibility can be delegated to him or her for the quality of work in that category on a day-to-day basis. Such delegation would be evidence that ‘you have a system for supervising clients’ matters, to include the regular checking of the quality of work by suitably competent and experienced people’ (SRA Code of Conduct 2011 outcome 7.8).
However, supervising solicitors need some mechanism that allows them to be confident that legal work is being competently handled in other categories of law. When working out systems of supervision, it is worth considering the best way to approach this if the supervising solicitor does not have line management responsibility for his or her colleagues. One way of achieving this could be joint managers’ and supervisors’ meetings to consider issues such as quality, resources and targets.
Agencies may wish to consider setting up a professional standards working group or sub-committee, including the supervising solicitor, the director/CEO and a member of the trustee board. This group could ensure systems are in place to meet all appropriate professional standards and could report to the trustee board annually. ■
More practical tips
Other ways to make the supervising solicitor role manageable include:
•clearly defined roles;
•realistic workloads – if someone is the supervising solicitor and legal aid supervisor, be realistic about the amount of time this takes and adjust billing targets where possible;
•a good working environment, time to consider things in a quiet place and somewhere people can discuss things in confidence;
•not expecting the supervising solicitor to be an expert on everything, but understanding that he or she needs an overview;
•awareness of the supervising solicitor’s role and responsibilities; and
•good communication, especially between the supervising solicitor, the director/CEO and the trustee board.