From time to time an interesting conversation and a willing contributor leads to a guest post on the blog. Barbara Hamilton-Bruce is a Chartered Legal Executive working in-house as Group Director of Legal Operations for Abstract Legal Holdings Limited. Barbara’s day-to-day role ranges from management of the group HR function, business development and compliance and regulation. She is also a force for good on twitter (@bhamiltonbruce).
You’ve changed… I have heard this a few times over the last couple of months. Sometimes said in jest, sometimes seriously and, on one occasion, as an accusatory statement! Of course I’ve changed, personally and professionally. We all do. It’s called life.
Lawyers operate in an ever changing environment. Our law firms, our colleagues, our clients, our clients’ needs, the law…the list goes on. Even without holding the title ‘change management specialist’ it’s what we do naturally every day. Sometimes we like change and embrace it. Sometimes we resist change and reject it and sometimes we are made to feel that we are in a cycle of ‘change for change’s sake’. That counterproductive period of our working lives where we feel that we are being asked to do something that simply is a waste of our time. We have better things to do.
I think I am going to put reference to the solicitor’s rules of practice into the last category because it still seems largely unpopular. The change from prescriptive rules of practice to outcome focused regulation has been embedded for over 12 months now yet in some quarters the changes remain as unpopular a subject as Christmas is to turkeys. I’ve heard so many references to the unworkable, time-consuming rules, the lack of ‘safe harbour’ advice and the uncertainty that has been created since the move from prescriptive rules of practice. This does seem a little odd when the work done by lawyers (day in, day out) is outcome focused: “I want a divorce/to buy a house/to write a will/to get compensation/buy a company”. If we are instructed we think about the objective, what we need to achieve, we plan, we consult, we advise, we record, we learn and we take that experience and feed it into the next client meeting or set of instructions. We are working in the business of change management and we’re outcome focused.
Recently I spoke to a large group of lawyers on the subject of customer service. It was natural for me to include reference to the Code of Conduct and the requirement to achieve mandatory outcomes on the treatment of clients. It generated one of those tumbleweed moments. I probed a bit further…did they understand the outcomes? A little bit further…had they read the outcomes? A few started to come back to me but the overwhelming majority were ambivalent about their regulatory environment including those who were relatively fresh out of the learning environment. I probed a bit further with each group and ascertained a range of responses for the ambivalence: some felt it was the job of the firm to deal with compliance(particularly those from large firms), some felt that they simply ‘knew’ the right from the wrong side of the line, some felt disgruntled and directed me to their professional qualifications; they simply knew how to treat clients and were always looking out for their best interests. We moved on to talk about compliant handling with a short introduction to mediation skills and the ‘art’ of conflict resolution. For most these were new skills but ones that sparked interest. Swapping stories of ‘bad’ experiences and discussing ways to diffuse and to de-escalate was a useful exercise for many but what I found disappointing was how few knew their firm’s complaint process or where to access that information. I began to question the delivery of the compliance information but at the same time asked the attendees to explain why they felt no personal responsibility to empower themselves about their regulatory environment. Is it not like getting behind the wheel of a car without reading the Highway Code? Granted we may know much about the road network from our time as a passenger but how about the compliance points, the speed limits and the road signs? It may be fair to say that this analogy is incorrect: the outcome is unlikely to be death or serious injury if you provide representation recklessly or without due care and consideration.
As those within the training group represented a mixed bag of experiences I took to Twitter for a little bit of crowd sourcing on the experience of recent LPC graduates. The responses were representative of the training group ranging from great educational experiences of regulation meaning they felt well prepared (but nervous) to those who felt compliance had not featuring strongly or the in-firm training experience gave little consideration to it. For all, turning what they had learned into practice was challenging, particularly with all of the other pressures of the training/working environment and many said that they were simply left to getting on with the job of delivering the law.
Of course it’s not just law newbies. The rules also apply to those of us who are long in the tooth and used to many years of being told what and how to do things by our regulators! There is the possibility that those leaving the legal education environment are more empowered on the subject of outcome focused regulation that those who are training them. After all, despite their massive learning curve they don’t have to compare and contrast old with new rules. They’ve not had to change and have the ‘luxury’ of embracing the landscape as is. Of us ‘old-timers’ how many have embraced the changes, accepted them as our new norm and are now educating new entrants or existing employees on this standard? Is there a possibility that many hold views similar to the training group and continue to be stuck in a counterproductive relationship with our regulatory environment? Could there be those that continue to see change as an unnecessary drain on their time and resources and are failing to educate new entrants on the new ways because of it? It’s easy to see examples, just look at the headlines of the firms who have still not nominated into their COLP and COFA roles despite the time limit having been long passed.
Whether we agree or disagree with the regulatory approach the landscape is now one of OFR. The challenge across the education arena, including CPD and law firms, is how you raise the basic level of awareness and understanding of this landscape consistently across the profession from new entrants to established practitioners so that the new order forms the new bedrock of the delivery of legal services.