Neil Rose reports that the Law Society is planning a, “£4m conveyancing quality scheme that aims to help solicitors maintain market share and improve profitability.” The key tenets of the scheme appear to be:
- an updated conveyancing protocol to which all members will have to adhere
- core practice management standards.
- robust monitoring and enforcement of the scheme to test the financial probity of conveyancing firms (and those working within them) as well as identity checks to minimise the risk of bogus firms and individuals.
In Lawyer Specialisation: Managing the Professional Paradox, I argued that specialisation involves a trade-off between reducing competition and improving quality (an early open access version is available here). Specialisation requirements needed to be pitched high if they are to make a genuine difference to quality. This might choke of access to legal services in parts of the country where market are too small to sustain higher quality, or in markets where consumers could only afford lower quality. As a result, a specialisation scheme which was voluntary but pitched at a high standard might give consumers both a genuine choice and a specialisation scheme which gennuinely contributed to raised standards. A scheme which aims to ensure all members can qualify does nothing to raise quality, punishes firms that are of better quality and misleads consumers. A voluntary scheme of this nature is probably the worst of both worlds.
Against that background, I have my doubts about the proposals. Policing identity checks and financial probity is a basic element of membership of the profession not just of conveyancing work. It is to be hoped that enforcement of improved standards is to go beyond this if membership of the scheme is to mean anything. A lesson from the legal aid scheme is that serious investment is needed in audits or peer review with teeth to have a significant effect. This is costly and traumatic for all involved. The Law Society has habitually (if understandably) bottled out of serious quality tests through specialisation panels. This is because poorer firms will plead competitive disdvantage and the Law Society feels duty bound to represent all its members. Post-ABS competitive pressures will not be so forgiving. If the protocol represents a serious step forward in terms of quality then this proposal is to be welcomed, but a protocol and management standards sounds like a quality test which all-comers can pass. A policy of all-must have prizes enables the Law Society to manage its constuencies, but it is not likely to be in the long term interests of clients or the more competitive high quality providers of conveyancing services.