It's the quality that counts

Local authority legal services have traditionally focused on the quality rather than the cost of services. Historically, there was no need to cost individual services and work would be allocated by reference to the most experienced available fee earner, rather than the cheapest.

This approach is no longer practicable without demonstrating that a more effective service is provided. Increasing financial pressures, the need to demonstrate value for money and direct competition with the private sector (including VCT and CCT) have made local authority legal services increasingly cost conscious.

This has provoked considerable debate about the achievement of quality and how it can be reconciled with price.

Local authorities are having to introduce working methods which mirror those of the private sector without any hard evidence that this will meet the authority's needs more effectively. The Department of Environment, Audit Commission, Chartered Institute of Public

Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) and the Law Society all recognise that quality of service is an important factor which should be taken into account when evaluating the provision of services.

But recognising this is very different to objectively defining and evaluating quality. While there is guidance from these and other bodies, there is no definitive answer.

Most local authority specifications and contract conditions require the delivery of quality services. The tenderer is expected to have professional, management and administrative systems which comply with practice rule 15 (client care) and preferably with one of the more extensive systems, such as the Code of Quality Management for Solicitors developed jointly by the Law Society and the BSI.

The specification may well require specific response times and staff seniority levels for different types of work.

This approach, like that of ISO9001, assumes that compliance with structured systems indicates a quality service is being provided. This is questionable. At best, such systems can only give a partial answer. Even a response which is received on time from a lawyer with the required seniority may not be of high quality – it can still be wrong and lead to considerable waste of money.

Quality is essentially subjective, so there are problems in identifying objective indicators that will help to evaluate the quality of legal services.

It is sometimes argued that measuring outputs is useful – for example, the percentage of cases that have been won or the number of transactions which are completed within a given period.

This may distinguish the sub-standard from the merely mediocre, but statistics cannot explain the underlying reasons for apparent good or poor performance.

So is trying to identify quality indicators a complete waste of time? I believe not. Quality is crucial. Most professionals believe they can readily identify good quality services as opposed to poor, but the question is how far they can identify key pointers and define them systematically.

Limited research has been carried out to identify those factors which are important to client departments.

The responses show that clients want advice/casework which is (not in any particular order): reliable; timely; credible; gives a range of options with analysis; effectively communicated and drafted; cost-effective and practical; and is given by lawyers who understand the client's sensitivities and requirements and who will assist in the competent implementation of objectives.

But only a few of these, such as compliance with timescales, can be assessed objectively.

Setting out the requirements at least helps to identify expectations and whether, subjectively, the contractor fulfils these. But I believe it is because of the difficulty in evaluating these subjective indicators that other process-based systems are being specified and used.

At the end of the day, subjective analysis is better than nothing. To reject any form of quality indicator would leave price as the only factor, which is clearly ridiculous. Client satisfaction, the most subjective quality indicator of all, exists, and if client departments are satisfied that paying a little more leads to a significant improvement in quality and, therefore, long-term value, they may opt for this.

Survival requires a proactive approach. The active demonstration of high quality and a clear focus on the needs of their one client should be the unique selling point for many local

authority legal providers.

The development of quality indicators is, therefore, important and a vital part of the process of client care. Let us be pragmatic about what can actually be achieved and not expect too much.

Leonie Cowen is a solicitor with her own practice specialising in the public sector.