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Welcome to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s second edition of Insight.

Featuring analysis on the legal sector and its regulation, it includes expert voices from the SRA and beyond.

In this issue:
  • Ofgem’s Rachel Fletcher tells us what customers want
  • Law firms and orchestras – all should have a fair opportunity Jane Malcolm, SRA Executive Director of External Affairs
  • What happens if a solicitor backdates a letter?
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Thinking outside The Cube

What do customers really want?
Rachel Fletcher, Ofgem Senior Partner, consumers and competition
As we consult on whether better information could help people choose legal services, we find out what has – and hasn't – worked for customers in a very different sector.

We spoke to Rachel Fletcher, a Senior Partner at Ofgem, about why people do not shop around, the downside of regulatory rules, and what happened when an estate agent recommended her a solicitor.
With only a third of people switching their energy supplier, what is stopping people shopping around?

The word we hear again and again is "hassle." If it is too much hassle, people won't switch. In energy, there are two main hurdles. One is the hassle of switching itself. The other – and more relevant if you are comparing with legal services – is the ease of finding useful information. If it is difficult, people won’t bother shopping around.

Are regulators and businesses communicating in the right way to get peoples' attention?

There is no one-size fit-all approach. Different people will need different content. Online will work well for most people, but not all. More tailored communications are better. For instance, in energy, talking about average bills or savings is not that effective. What gets people off their seat and engaging is personalised messages, such as savings linked directly to an individual’s energy usage.

Is there a risk of information overload?

Definitely. At the moment, we are running a digital deal checker trial with customers. We have learnt that when choosing, people do not want lots of options or they switch off. Our evidence suggests three options is the right amount to get people switching.

Can regulators make things worse by prescribing lots of rules for how businesses should communicate with customers?

However well-intentioned, we have found lots of rules do not help. Firstly, companies end up finding loopholes. Secondly it can block innovation. And thirdly, it can take responsibility away from businesses. They are best placed to own the customer relationship and work out the best way to communicate with specific people. Principles can be more effective.

How do people choose legal services?
insight diversity infograph
What role do comparison websites have?

They can really help, but people need to feel confident using them. We have set up a voluntary code for them, with an emphasis on independence and transparency. Trust is crucial.

What are your recent experience with solicitors?

Well I have had one good, and one not so good experience. When moving house, the estate agent recommended a solicitor. With hindsight, I should have shopped around. But as a buyer with limited knowledge, with time constrained, it was a convenient option. I imagine that is typical. Research shows that with complicated services, like energy or even more so legal services, people tend to go on recommendations. The second time, I saw a law firm stand in my local shopping centre. After seeing them several times, I thought crikey I really need a will. So a combination of the prompt and convenience drove my choice.

What type of information would you have found useful in that situation?

I would have liked to be able to do a quick online search to check that the firm I was using was legitimate and for a quality check. The growth of social media and websites like Trustpilot and Feefo are having a big impact and plugging a useful information gap. They can provide an easy route to work out whether a business seems to be providing good service. I might have made the same choice, but that type of information could have given me more peace of mind.

The SRA is consulting on proposals to improve the quality of information available to help people make legal choices. Let us know your views on our proposals.

Find out more

Law firms and orchestras – all should have a fair opportunity
Jane Malcolm, SRA Executive Director of External Affairs
Are men more talented musicians than women? It was a common view in the 1970s.

The top five orchestras in the US had fewer than five percent women. A study by Goldin and Rouse showed that discrimination was part of the problem. During the 70s and 80s, US orchestras introduced ‘blind auditions’, where the audition took place behind a screen so the hiring panel would not know who was auditioning.

The research suggested there had been significant gender bias when hiring. The screen helped tackle the problem. A woman was 50% more likely to get through a blind preliminary audition. She was also more likely to be appointed. Now around 40 per cent of these orchestras are female.

All of us like to think we are not biased. But everybody is prone to unconscious bias. It is the way our brains are wired. It helps us make sense of situations quickly. The challenge is to be aware of it and to avoid it determining our decisions.

Last week we published a review of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) issues in the legal sector, which involved more than 40 firms. The good news is that law firms are doing a lot of good work. Blind and contextual recruitment can help, although the best firms are looking at the way things are done across their whole business. They are making sure cultural change is driven from the top. This includes creating an inclusive culture, that is open to flexible working, and has fair processes for career progression.

It makes business sense. Firms want to make sure they recruit the best people, regardless of background. They then want to hold onto their most talented performers. They may also benefit from a ‘diversity dividend’ – evidence that show diverse boards and workforces perform better. Different approaches will work for different firms.

A small firm may be limited in how much resource they can commit to overhauling their recruitment process, but they may be able to do a lot, for little cost, to develop a more inclusive culture. Whether that is encouraging partners to take paternity leave or perhaps reviewing policies to strip out any diversity bias.

There is no doubt that the profession is more diverse. Half of solicitors are now female, and almost one in five are Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic (BAME).

But clearly there is still a problem with career progress. Women and BAME solicitors continue to be under-represented at partner level, particularly in big, corporate firms. There is no simple solution, but I think we can all agree that just as no one race or gender makes an inherently better musician, being a good solicitor is nothing to do with our gender, ethnicity or where we come from. A more diverse legal sector is a stronger one.
Brief case

Mistakes happen – it's best to come clean

We have seen a lot of recent examples of solicitors compounding what might have been reasonably more minor breaches by trying to cover their tracks.

Some instances have involved what would initially be lower-level misconduct, such as missing a court deadline. But solicitors have made matters much worse by trying to mask their actions. Sometimes through amendments, such as backdating a letter or changing a court document, or even by creating new ones.

We treat any instance seriously - after all, falsifying documents is a far more significant breach of the Principles than forgetting to send a letter. The sanctions we have seen handed out by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) have often included a strike off, because these actions have constituted dishonesty.

In the last year, the SDT has heard 23 cases involving the fabrication of documents. All but three have seen the solicitor involved prevented from practising. This includes 15 strike offs and three suspensions. The average cost of each case was more than £10,000.

While it might be difficut and damaging in the short term to admit to a client or your firm that you have not done what you were supposed to do, the consequences of the cover up can be far worse.
They said
"At present, consumers of legal services, be it ordinary consumers or corporate consumers, bear the full risk of lack of price transparency."
Dr Jane Martin, Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) Chair calling for law firms to be more open as their 2017 Tracker survey shows limited progress to date.
And finally
  • We are consulting on our the second phase of changes to create a simpler Handbook for solicitors focused on high standards. It includes the proposal to enable solicitors offer reserved legal services, in certain circumstances, on a freelance basis.
  • As the Government looks to clamp down on “aggressive” tax avoidance schemes, we have reminded the profession that they need to make sure they are giving competent tax advice in their client’s best interes.
  • Our Risk Outlook update highlights the latest risk that could affect law firms, including criminals looking to use solicitors to help them launder money.

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