A look at some of the main benefits of adopting The Law Society’s practice excellence standard.
I am working with an increasing number of practices that are switching from the Legal Aid Agency’s Specialist Quality Mark
(SQM) to The Law Society’s Lexcel
standard. This can be because they are branching out into non-legal aid areas of law, such as conveyancing or wills and probate, and they want a quality standard that covers all the work they do.
Alternatively, it can be because they see the advantages of a standard that is more closely aligned to Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Standards and Regulations 2019
. There is much more emphasis on justifying why you took a particular course of action (or did not). Lexcel gives you a framework that sets out the policies adopted throughout the firm and can be used to ensure that decisions are justifiable.
The SRA emphasises the importance of risk management (SRA Code of Conduct for Firms para 2.5). It is not covered explicitly in the SQM, whereas it merits a whole section in Lexcel (Lexcel v6.1, section 5).1Lexcel England and Wales v6.1 standard for legal practices, The Law Society, March 2018.
Not-for-profit organisations have an advantage here, 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 v6.1, 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. 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 (Lexcel v6.1, 3.2).
Supervision is covered as part of the risk management section. All personnel – not just fee earners, as in the SQM – must be actively supervised (Lexcel v6.1, 5.9). Staff are encouraged to escalate problems when and where appropriate. In relation to file reviews, there is more flexibility about how many files you review and how often you do so (Lexcel v6.1, 5.11).
Having a business continuity plan (BCP) is good practice and a Lexcel requirement (Lexcel v6.1,1.3), but is not a requirement in the SQM. 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.
Having a corporate social responsibility policy is optional (Lexcel v6.1, 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.
The SQM does not require cash flow monitoring, but Lexcel does (Lexcel v6.1, 2.2f). Many organisations fail because they simply run out of cash and become insolvent. Forecasting your needs for cash during the year and conducting regular monitoring of the actual position can enable you to take early action and prevent a crisis from developing.
Lexcel imposes more requirements than the SQM in relation to personnel management, but these are all extremely useful (Lexcel v6.1, section 4), for example, checking SRA disciplinary records as part of the recruitment process.
It also requires a full assessment every three years and an annual maintenance visit in the other two years, meaning there are additional costs compared with the SQM, which is only audited every three years. However, Lexcel assessments note areas of good practice as well as non-compliance, and several of the practices I have assisted say that the process feels more positive.
Finally, Lexcel builds in systems that are regarded as good practice by professional indemnity insurers and reduces the likelihood of claims. There can also be a financial benefit as you may see your professional indemnity insurance costs fall due to improved procedures.