Alternative Business Structures – All systems go for SRA

 In Comment, Gill's Blog

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The statutory instrument has been laid before Parliament and will be operative from 23 December 2011 authorising the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority (SRA) of the Law Society to licence Alternative Business Structures (ABS). The SRA will be in business as a licensing body and regulator from 3 January 2012.

Professionally, we are in that strange lull in the weather before the storm clouds roll in; although the Scots might disagree after the buffeting they have recently received as the gales smash in from the West. We are not quite sure what to expect; we are nervous and some are predicting gloom and the end of legal practice as we know it and some are anticipating boom and the change in legal practice as we know it. Are you a glass half full or half empty person?

The delay in licensing ABS has meant many practitioners have largely focused back on doing what legal work they can in our current harsh business environment; rather than plan for the future. In some respects that is understandable in the absence of strong leadership and practical tools being offered by the Law Society.

However, it is quite clear that despite the state of the economy; or maybe even because of it, there are various businesses only too keen to enter the legal marketplace with a consumer focused offering just as soon as the SRA opens for business in the New Year.

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Wills and Probate practitioners will be aware that the Legal Services Board is currently reviewing whether or not to make Will writing, estate administration and related services reserved activities. They have until July 2012 to decide. In the Gazette on 8 December 2011 Charles Plant of the SRA advocates that all legal services should be regulated rather than deal with them in a piecemeal way.

The consumer may have achieved a streamlined complaints service for legal services with the Legal Ombudsman offering but it is true that having different regulators supervising a variety of different entities which may operate under different regulatory regimes depending on the area of law which is reserved and regulated can only confuse the consumer.

Realistically, I doubt the Legal Services Board, as an organ of government, will want to regulate all legal services at a time when governments of just about any political hue don’t seem to want lawyers to provide legal advice but rather anyone other than a lawyer! However, I do think they will want to protect the consumer so it would make sense to consider those areas of practice where we handle money for the client or where we deal with providing others with the means to manage someone else’s money might well be suitable for reservation.

I notice that the Bar Standards Board are emphasising that the Bar should not only have direct access to the public but also be able to handle client’s money through escrow services of some kind. Apparently, in other jurisdictions like Canada for example, lawyers do not hold clients’ money directly but through escrow services and hence have a much lesser regulatory regime applicable to them.

So my advice to you –

  • Keep thinking, keep planning and keep working towards how your firm will be offering a distinct Wills and estate administration service in what is soon to be a crowded market.
  • Please do not say you are targeting ‘high net worth’ individuals as so many of you tell me you are. What does this mean? How are you changing your know-how to address the needs of this ‘sector’?
  • Focus all your efforts on how you can maximise the value you provide to your clients.
  • If you have an original idea as to how to be a ‘trusted adviser’ make sure you promote it as heavily as you can through all your contacts, clients, referrers and media.

This is no time to hide from the storm. It is time to ride the storm; to be prepared to be tossed and turned by it but always to know how to get up again and keep on track to reach your goal.

I wish you safe passage.

Gill Steel

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