Legal standard bearers

Mark Green believes firms can buy themselves a bargaining chip or two by taking on board a quality mark for services

Solicitors know as well as any professionals the importance of quality service. But how do you ensure that you deliver just that?

Quality standards were developed to meet this need, a formal standard which provides a guarantee that all the elements which go to make up a quality service are in place.

It benefits both solicitors and their clients. Solicitors have a framework for delivering quality, while clients can rest assured they will be receiving a given level of service.

However, it is important to choose the right standard. The legal profession has experimented with a variety of quality standards, but none have won general acceptance.

It is worth looking at the different standards to understand the reasons for this.

There are two different types of standard; those which focus on the business' procedures and those which focus on its people.

Standards which focus on procedures have a longer heritage than those which focus on people. Such standards have their origins in manufacturing industry. Manufacturers came to realise that when making large numbers of identical products it was impossible to individually test the quality of every item.

Instead, they opted to test the process by which the products were made. The quality standard which developed from this approach, called ISO 9000, is consequently based on systems and procedures.

The ISO 9000 standard requires the firm to define the systems it has in place for ensuring a quality service. The assumption is that if the system is working properly a quality service will result.

These systems must be documented in a manual. Care needs to be taken to ensure that the manual reflects what the firm actually does, rather than what it aspires to do.

When the firm comes to be assessed, it will need to demonstrate that its procedures operate in accordance with the manual and that staff are familiar with its contents.

The firm defines its own quality system. ISO 9000 defines the framework, but because it is designed to apply across a whole range of industries, it does not seek to define the system itself. Defining the quality system, therefore, allows the firm to be as prescriptive as it wishes to be.

The Law Society's practice management standards, which were based on ISO 9000, follow a similar approach. The Legal Aid Board's franchising specification, in turn, draws heavily on the practice management standards.

Procedure-based standards are, therefore, relevant for any firm which is considering a franchise. They will also be relevant to firms which carry out a large amount of routine, process-based work, such as occurs in debt collection or conveyancing.

With such work, it is feasible to encapsulate all the steps that are taken on each case in a set of written procedures.

Given a fairly simple task, it is reasonable to assume that a quality service will be delivered if only procedures are followed correctly.

However, with professional services, as opposed to products, it is more difficult to evaluate quality.

In practice, quality for a solicitor depends on how the client perceives the service. Some solicitors have the capacity to deliver advice in such a way that the client is reassured and satisfied.

Others will deliver exactly the same advice, yet leave the client dissatisfied.

The quality of their work depends on the individual who is delivering it and how they interact with the client.

What is needed is a quality standard which focuses on the skills and experience of the individual rather than legal products.

Investors in People may be the answer. A national quality standard, Investors in People is designed to ensure that staff are competent enough to make the best possible contribution to the organisation that employs them. It does this by focusing the attention of the organisation on the training and development of its staff.

Organisations whose policies and practices reflect the principles of the standard are rewarded with formal recognition as Investors in People.

The process of assessing whether organisations meet the standard required does not rely as heavily on written materials, such as manuals and documented procedures, as much as on the ISO 9000.

Instead, a central part of the assessment is based on interviewing individual members of staff to find out whether the organisation merits recognition (See Fig 1). Investors in People works in a law firm in the following way:

– Continuing professional education.

An Investor in People firm establishes exactly what training its qualified staff need, then identifies suitable courses and evaluates whether attendance has been worthwhile.

– Effective staff induction.

An Investor in People works out what recruits need to know and need to be able to do if they are to function effectively in their jobs. The firm then gives them the training and preparation they need before letting them loose on clients.

– Targets for development actions

An Investor in People reviews the training needs of every individual in the firm (including non-fee earners) on a regular basis, to assess what they need to learn in order to carry out their jobs effectively. Investors in People is being promoted actively by the Government, so local Training and Enterprise Councils are encouraging firms in their area to apply for the scheme and are providing financial assistance with implementing it.

– Will lawyers adopt quality standards?

Ensuring quality should be a paramount concern for any legal practice. However, formal standards as a means of ensuring quality have not been adopted widely so far in the profession.

The explanation for the relatively low adoption of standards probably lies in solicitors perceiving few direct benefits either for them or their clients.

With Investors in People emphasising the personal, qualitative nature of client service, the mood could now be starting to change.

Certainly, more and more firms are expressing an interest in the scheme.

If a critical mass of legal firms operates a quality standard, adoption of that standard will become not just an indication that the individual firm is serious about delivering a quality service, but an essential prerequisite for competing effectively in the marketplace.

Progressive firms may, therefore, decide that it is better to start working towards a quality standard sooner rather than later.

Mark Green is a senior consultant at London-based chartered accountants BDO Stoy Hayward.