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Welcome to the Solicitors Regulation Authority's first edition of Insight.

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

In this issue:

  • Ipsos Mori CEO, Ben Page, asks if we can we trust lawyers?
  • SRA Chair, Enid Rowlands, wants a new legal conversation
  • Why you could be fined for sending "despicable" emails
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Thinking outside The Cube

Can we trust lawyers?
 Ben Page, Ipsos Mori CEO
Have you heard the one about the doctor, teacher and the judge? Neither have I, but what unites them is that our polling shows they are the professions the public trust most.

Hairdressers are not far behind. Of course you would want to trust people who hold sharp implements close to your head. And the policedespite plebgatewe still like them quite a lot. There are some shifts. The clergy are in decline, while trust in the civil service has gone up - though can that simply be attributed to fewer runs of Yes Minister? After Brexit trust in politicians has fallen to 15 percent (pollsters are down to 49 percent).

However what is most striking is that public trust in professions has remained remarkably constant over three decades. There may be less deference to big institutions, but trust is not evaporating.

Trust in lawyers

Lawyers remain somewhere in the middle with a 52 percent trust rating. Law firms are less trusted than business on the whole, yet they are not doing as badly as the banks or utility companies. Honesty and integrity in business have become more important, while product quality is talked about less because it is now taken for granted.

What are law firms perceived to be bad at? It is the same as the rest of British businessputting profits before customers. But actually many people just do not know because they have not used one, so the sector may be suffering from views of business overall. 82 percent do want an independent regulator for law firmsI don't think people are lined up with flaming torches demanding this, but obviously its deemed to be much more transparent than self regulation.            
Veracity index 2016
Who British public trust to tell the truth

Ipsos Mori, social research institute 2016
Building trust - retailers lead the way

Law firms could learn from retailers who score top marks on trust. When asked who they trusted to help them through the recession, people said supermarkets. Not the government, not the Bank of England. This was because their communications were focused on looking out for their customers. The public likes good service, being well treated and admitting mistakes. Complain in a Prêt a Manger and you will immediately get an apology and maybe a voucher for money off. Doctors and solicitors are not quite so keen on this in my experience.

Cost is not as important as quality of service. I spent a lot of money with three law firms last year. I do not mind an expensive lawyer as long as I either win or I understand why I haven't. I do, however, mind if they won't even answer my emails.

It's crucial to treat clients as individuals. If you value a customer then give them a discountdon't wait for them to ask. Make the top management visible and accountable. Keep it simple. And, above all, do what you say you are going to do with staggering consistencythen you will never have to encounter the SRA! Or, alternatively, build trust by becoming a hairdresser.
Brief case

"Despicable" emails count as providing legal services
A Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) case has highlighted the need to refrain from using words others might find offensive in work email.

The solicitor involved admitted to acting without integrity, was fined a large amount, and made subject to significant costs, for exchanging emails deemed offensive with a client. In its judgment, the SDT said the emails were "despicable", with comments and references that were sexually explicit and sexist. Many of the exchanges contained abusive, disparaging and insulting comments about women.

This was similar to a case heard in 2015, when three solicitors were fined a total of £14,000 and shared £7,200 in costs for exchanging offensive emails about colleagues. One of the colleagues found the emails and produced them in the Employment Tribunal.

In this instance, there had been a query from one of the solicitors about whether or not the emails were admissible as evidence.

The judgment said: "The Tribunal was satisfied that the respondents intended the emails to be private and did not expect them to be seen by others. However, the exchanges had taken place on the firm's email system and were thus capable of being accessed by individuals in the firm in certain circumstances.

"The Tribunal did not accept there was no risk the emails would be read by anyone other than the recipient(s)..."

It was made clear that work emails are part of your business and legal services provision. They are, therefore, subject to the Handbook, regardless of whether or not they are personal and private.          

Changing the legal conversation
Enid Rowlands, Chair of the SRA Board
I love living on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park, but with work taking me all over the country, trains sometimes feel like my second home. There I have conversations with people from all walks of life. The topics can be gloriously unpredictable — from Aboriginal history to cycling in France. Yet the reaction is more predictable when I mention my links to the legal sector. "Now I'm worrying that this will be an expensive conversation!?"

The light-hearted comments reveal a more serious problem. As one of our largest exports, legal services are a great international success story, but at home too many people simply cannot afford them.

Legal services matter to us all. They can help at some of the most important moments in our life — whether buying a house, dealing with an unscrupulous employer, or handling a relationship breakdown. Research shows that even if people realise they have a legal problem — and many do not — people think legal services are too expensive. Only one out of 10 people use a solicitor or barrister when they have a legal problem.

It can't be right that we have a two-tier system with the vast majority of people unable to access the help they need to enforce or defend their rights.

CMA points in right direction

I welcome the Competition and Markets Authority's (CMA) recent verdict that reform is needed to better serve the public. They recommend greater transparency. We are already exploring how people could access meaningful information on service, quality and price, so they can shop around for a better deal. Information would need to have appropriate context, but we can learn from other sectors where this has already happened — from energy to financial services — to do this in an effective way.

Perhaps more contentious is the CMA's support for removing restrictions on where solicitors can work. We all know that there is an ever-growing market of 'non-regulated' firms providing legal services such as will-writing and resolving employment disputes. It must seem very odd to the public that anyone from an accountant to a plumber can work in these firms, but not a solicitor. Surely that is an increasingly outdated constraint, one which limits public choice as well as the career options for solicitors.

So we want to change the rules, making it easier for people to access the high standards and expertise that solicitors offer, potentially in more affordable ways. It could also help create new ways of doing business — for instance, an architectural practice could employ a solicitor to provide planning advice.

Of course, there would need to be clear communication about the more limited protections for those using a solicitor in a non-SRA regulated firm. Yet the CMA concluded that these risks are manageable. And are outweighed by the benefits of the public having a greater opportunity to access competitive legal services.

Opportunities for all

It's clear to me that the proposals for greater transparency will not only help the public, but will also open up opportunities for professionals. Firms that provide relevant, accessible and value for money services will thrive. And the removal of restrictions on where solicitors can work will open up opportunities for them to work in new areas and reach new clients.

While most people cannot afford legal services, we cannot afford to carry on doing the same thing. Better information and making access to solicitors easier could mean ordinary people's needs are better served. And eventually I may be able to have a different conversation about legal services on a train.               
They said
"We know the vast majority of solicitors and law firms would not knowingly become involved in investment scams. The small number of solicitors who abuse their position of trust can do great damage, not only to the public but also to the profession."
Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive
highlighting the growing problem of investment scams using law firms
And finally
  • Save the date - our second SRA Innovate Conference will take place in London on 26 April. More details soon.
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