The Legal Services Consumer Panel is concerned that clients have limited means of knowing whether a solicitor is competent and has ensured his or her skills have been updated throughout what can be a long career.
A letter from Panel Chair Sarah Chambers, addressed to the Legal Services Board set out the following concerns:
“The Panel believes that a lawyer’s initial education and training cannot offer a career-long guarantee of competence. There can be substantive changes in the law, in its interpretation and a person’s skills may need upgrading throughout their career. Therefore, it is vital that providers are subjected to ongoing assessment in order to ensure their services are of high quality and standard. This would benefit providers, consumers and even regulators, since evidence suggests that experienced solicitors are disproportionately more likely to face regulatory action.
It is the Panel’s strong opinion that the final decision on how to regulate for ongoing competence should not rely solely on quantitative evidence of failings, wrongdoings or even evidence from other sectors. It is imperative that the decision is also rooted in ”levelling up” the quality of services to consumers. This requires vigilance in ensuring ongoing competence. Given the lack of transparency in this market, the lack of ‘hard’ evidence does not necessarily imply that there is no issue to be addressed – “no evidence of disease is not the same as evidence of no disease.
The letter went on to say:
Consumers do not have the means to assess whether lawyers who qualified a long time ago are still competent or have the same knowledge as those who have qualified more recently. This suggests that consumers are taking a “leap of faith” and assume that all lawyers have the requisite competence when they purchase legal services.
Consumers have little choice but to rely on the checks and assessments made by regulators and employers on entry to the profession and during a legal professional’s career. Indeed, they already assume that this happens.
Proactive and reactive competence checks should occur throughout a professional’s career. Whilst these can be undertaken in a range of ways, checks should ideally involve some independent review of cases or advice, such as spot checks or mystery shopping”.
The Panel argues that all solicitors should be required to show competence in technical and interpersonal skills. Furthermore, that regulators should consider building and maintaining solicitors’ expertise in the application of technology related skills.
CPD requirements ensure that skills and expertise are continually being updated; however, the Panel argues that these are not sufficient, and re-accreditation should also be dependent on regulatory checks e.g, file review or periodic exams.
Would mystery shopping uncover incompetence?
Mystery shopping has been conducted on law firms in the past, and the results have been positive.
According to the Law Society Gazette :
“…most shoppers reported being happy with their interactions with firms, as four in five found their overall treatment warm and engaging, with few complaints about the use of jargon.
Almost two-thirds of potential clients gave firms at least an eight out of 10 when rating whether they would recommend the firm to others.”
The main issue the mystery shoppers uncovered was that the contacted law firms sometimes took days to return phone calls and some did not attempt to add any value or seem pleased to receive the shoppers ‘custom’. However, this is likely to be a reflection on a law firm’s business, rather than the competence of its solicitors.
The suggestions from the Legal Services Consumer Panel will simply put increasing pressure on a profession that is already the most regulated in the country. Furthermore, the letter states:
“To build our evidence, we used our Tracker Survey data, anecdotal evidence from our recent qualitative research and previous papers we published on the topic. We also looked at transferable evidence from other sectors, bolstered by Panel members’ expertise.”
The Panel does not cite a comprehensive research project to establish if continuing competency is a problem. Perhaps conclusive proof of a problem ought to be found before a resource-hungry, and expensive solution is suggested.
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