If your lawyers are good and clients are satisfied, a poor peer review assessment can come as something of a shock, as one of Vicky Ling’s clients found out. How do you avoid an unpleasant surprise?
The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) plans to undertake 175 peer reviews in civil and crime categories of law during 2015–16, according to a plan it has recently shared with the Civil Contracts Consultative Group. As the number of contract holders continues to fall, the odds that your practice will be selected are getting shorter.
I have been working with a firm that had the misfortune to have a ‘below competent’ (grade 4) peer review assessment. It was given six months to improve, knowing if it didn’t, it would lose its contract. The partners made the decision that as there would have to be significant changes, we should aim high and obtain at least ‘competence plus’ next time.
What’s the problem?
The first task was to identify what had gone wrong. Were the lawyers actually incompetent or was there another problem? Partners and staff were confident that clients were being correctly advised, but had to agree that what they did was not always recorded on files.
In my experience, systems and procedures tend to get layered on top of each other and no one quite remembers why they are there. LAA requirements and good practice have changed over the years, but somehow there is never time to undertake a thorough review of file management and precedents. This had to be tackled head-on.
Making paper work
As in many firms, the files are partly paper and partly electronic. This can cause a problem for peer reviewers if you do not print off all the relevant information and send it in. Having a split file also creates the potential to overlook things, assuming they have been covered in the other part of the file. The firm had tried to deal with this by adopting checklists on the paper files, but it was obvious that they were not being completed.
Incomplete checklists usually indicate that they are no longer appropriate and need to be updated. Checklists are really useful to remind you to do things you tend to overlook, as a quick check that something has been done, or as aides-memoire for less-experienced caseworkers. However, it is important not to get sucked in and create an entry for every activity, as that only creates duplication and does not add value.
The firm’s basic form for taking the client’s initial instructions did not provide enough ‘free space’, making it difficult for the fee-earner to record the client’s instructions and the advice given. So, we redrafted it. ‘To do’ items had been recorded on post-it notes on the front of files. These became detached too easily and led to things being missed, so we made sure all attendance notes had a section headed ‘next steps’, to prompt people to record what needed to be done next.
We managed to get rid of two A4 forms entirely and kept sections of two others, which became a user-friendly quick reference point.
If you want to update your checklists, you could do worse than read the ‘Improving Your Quality’ guides and pick up any issues you tend to miss. While they date from before LASPO and have not been updated since, these guides (for crime, debt, employment, family, housing, immigration and mental health, as well as a generic version) helpfully set out the key issues in each area of law and show what the peer reviewers are looking for. I have used them with a range of not-for-profit and private practices, and the reaction is always the same – they are easy to understand and of great practical value. You can still download many of them from the archived Legal Services Commission website.1http://tinyurl.com/qdazgzs
Initial letters confirming instructions, advice and action to be taken may also need an overhaul. Caseworkers were using a lengthy standard letter that tried to cover all eventualities that might crop up during a case and was not client-specific. This would not have helped the peer review score, even though there was a lot of useful information in it. I suggested it should be redrafted into a number of specific letters, one of which would be applicable to a client’s particular circumstances and would be relatively short. With any luck, clients might actually read them.
By contrast, telephone attendance notes were too brief, probably because the telephone message pads were the size of postage stamps! While these may be fine for support staff to record ‘please phone Mr X’, they should not be used by caseworkers as they discourage full recording.
‘Procedures tend to get layered on top of each other and no one quite remembers why they are there.’
Plan of action
I recommended that a working group was set up, including both fee-earners and administrators, to carry out a thorough review of the way cases were managed as well as file management and standard documentation. The implementation plan was:
•redraft checklists and standard documentation;
•circulate for comments, amend and finalise;
•update the file review forms to cover the peer review criteria;
•train supervisors in the peer review approach;
•hold a training session for all staff on new systems and procedures;
•a month later, assess progress on implementation and report to partners;
•make any amendments required and ensure everyone is clear about changes; and
•monitor consistency through independent file reviews.
Happily, the plan worked, as the firm was assessed at ‘competence plus’ (grade 2) on the second sample of files. The lawyers were the same people as before, but the case recording and management systems had been transformed so they got the credit for the good work they were doing.