I was fascinated by the SRA’s recent proposal to abolish the requirement that any solicitor who wants to set up in practice needs 3 years of practising certificates (Rule 12 of the Practice Framework Rules). It raises questions about whether those working in the ‘profession’ really are different to other sectors.
My initial response to the proposal was absolute horror – I certainly wouldn’t want to be advised by someone who has just qualified without supervision! But then I remembered how easy it was to set up my own company (30 minutes on the Companies House website, no qualifications needed) and this made me consider whether setting up a law firm is so very different. A couple of questions:
• Has the England & Wales solicitor qualification ever provided evidence of an ability to run a business? Despite Accounts and Conduct, this has to be a no! Interestingly, in Ireland all trainee solicitors take a module on setting up a legal practice, and so are better prepared.
• Would having a practising certificate for 3 years make a solicitor more able to run a business? Perhaps, but it would depend on their operational experience of running a business during that time, which is likely to be minimal.
So Rule 12 makes no sense in terms of ensuring a solicitor is business-savvy, beyond creating an age barrier for young and potentially innovative lawyers, or indeed an artificial barrier for those transferring into the profession with business experience already under their belt.
A more interesting question is whether the consumer (rightly or wrongly) expects there to be a higher threshold for establishing a solicitor practice than there is for opening a corner shop? Are the checks which the SRA have (or will put) in place, sufficient? Are the rules around continuing competency robust enough to protect the consumer? Or do the usual rules of caveat emptor apply to legal services and therefore the onus is on the consumer to find out how qualified their lawyer is, from the SRA or comparison websites, before handing over their cash?
There is a risk that the most vulnerable consumers of legal services, increasingly without the added protection of the Legal Aid Agency, will be the ones who suffer most.
So where does responsibility lie?
By way of comparison, I thought I would find out how easy it is to set up a dental practice. I was initially surprised to discover that the Care Quality Commission doesn’t impose any requirement in terms of number of years post-qualification, but it does seem to have an extensive (and I hope for all our sakes!) effective process for assessing whether a dental practice includes individuals with the right skills, qualifications and experience. I think that’s what we need to see from the SRA.
The SRA is right in the sense that Rule 12 is unclear, misinterpreted and potentially a barrier to market entry. It also sends out the message to clients and solicitors, that having 3 years’ experience is evidence of competence (either legal or business-related), which is hard to justify. However, unless the solicitor profession is to be reduced to the status of a corner-shop, the checks which the SRA have in place will need to be good!