“The LAPG conference provided lessons on survival for legal aid providers.”
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Marc Bloomfield
LAPG Conference-094-06.10.2017PHOTO: ROBERT ABERMAN
When it comes to planning the LAPG annual conference, nothing has been as bad as the first one I worked on. With a week to go, I turned on the radio on a Saturday afternoon and learnt that our keynote speaker – an eminent politician – had just been shuffled out of the Ministry of Justice. This led to frantic calls on Monday – would there be a replacement by Friday? And would the replacement be sent along? I didn't care if they read a prepared speech and wouldn't answer questions.
This year we tried a new tactic and listed a mystery guest at the end of the day. We were delighted that Lord Bach did turn up and spoke so passionately about The right to justice. And it worked as a way of stopping delegates from sneaking out early. The out-of-conference drinks reception may have helped too.
There was a very lively plenary session where four practitioners spoke about their organisations’ survival plans. Adam Makepeace of Tuckers Solicitors is incapable of being dull. He was previously at Duncan Lewis, so has experience of two very large firms and the issues they face. Some see Tuckers as a behemoth, taking over a number of smaller criminal defence firms. He, though, views the firm as a legal services infrastructure provider. The firms it works with retain their own brands and the energy that comes with that. For example, SL5 Legal, a new firm of prison law specialists, can express itself in the way it wants to while seeing the benefits of being part of the larger organisation that is Tuckers.
Tuckers has dedicated support functions, for example, for IT and billing. However, backoffice functions cost money and for this model to be effective, those staff have to be busy, so the organisation needs to be a certain size to give them work to do. Everyone benefits from professionals in their disciplines supporting the wider business: they work to provide easier and better ways of getting the job done. Notably, Tuckers has staff in the office answering calls 24 hours a day.
Adam also emphasised that digitisation is vital. Tuckers has made exciting progress at linking into the offline Legal Aid Agency (LAA) form, and its staff can copy data from its own form to the LAA form.
Elspeth Thomson, managing partner of David Gray Solicitors, humorously thanked LAPG for inviting her as it indicated that we believe her firm has a plan. She stressed the importance of getting the operational basics right: read the LAA contract, bid for work and make sure you comply with the terms.
She made the point, as Adam had, that systems have to work for you. You can protect profit with processes and procedures (for example, David Gray Solicitors is very concerned with managing data properly). You must also get the right people and train them correctly. Protect against fee leakage, for example, by ensuring everyone understands eligibility requirements and what is needed to sail through audits. Have processes in place to support this work.
Jawaid Luqmani of Luqmani Thompson & Partners got rave reviews for his session in the 2016 conference. Could he be as hard-hitting and funny as before? He teased the conference with two abbreviations, EDWINAW and PC.GM, and invited the audience to guess what they meant based on what he said.
Stressing how tough it is for small firms (although he did mention the green shoots of recovery, recently fertilised by government), Jawaid emphasised the need to be adaptable and the importance of good management. What’s your firm’s culture? You have to change and be resilient. So what does EDWINAW stand for? Even Dr Who Is Now A Woman. PC.GM, meanwhile, is not political correctness gone mad; it stands for Progress Change – Good Management.
Ruth Hayes of Islington Law Centre (ILC) highlighted that the organisation wants, and needs, to make a splash. Its staff know they cannot solve every problem for every person who comes through the door, but they do try to think about ways to punch above their weight, for example, by focusing on strategic litigation. They look for projects focusing on strategic cases, where they will make a big difference, and test cases, trying to change the landscape.
ILC also communicates with a wider audience, for example, through its blogs, writing for the Justice Gap’s Proof magazine and attending City events. Its staff talk to MPs and councillors. They answer consultations. They seek to highlight that legal aid is another public service where gaps need to be addressed. They work with groups such as the Justice Alliance and are clear that they need to get their principles and ideas out to a wider audience. A lot of effective work involves relationships and collaboration, and public perception matters.
Ruth also raised the important matter of staff well-being. Many Law Centre clients have gone through trauma, have had suicidal thoughts and have been destitute. This impacts on the people advising them, who also need support.
Meanwhile, Richard Miller, head of the Law Society’s justice team, provided an overview of IT developments of relevance to the legal aid world. He covered Briggs LJ’s online court proposals and ran through other developments, noting that, as voice recognition and artificial intelligence take off, they will transform legal practice. The full text of his speech is well worth reading.
There were many other sessions that covered important ground, and we would like to thank all speakers who prepared so well and delivered so many thoughtful and helpful sessions.

About the author(s)

Description: Carol Storer - author
Carol Storer is interim director of LAG. She was director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group for 10 years until November 2018.