Do sole practitioners have a future? My short answer is “Yes”, but with qualifications.
The first is that the profession is becoming an increasingly crowded place. This puts pressure on all those in firms to justify their position by achieving billing targets.
Some have almost certainly decided to take up sole practice rather than continue with partner pressures of this kind. Those who will succeed are those who are willing to adapt and very probably to specialise.
In the longer term, the whole nature of the conveyancing process could change. More immediately, there is the debate about whether the same solicitor should be allowed to act for both buyer and lender. The lenders must limit the demands that some of them place on solicitors; this should allow the same solicitor to continue to represent them and the buyer.
Even then I question whether we will be able to banish completely the reluctance of some lenders to instruct sole practitioners and other small firms.
This reluctance seems to stem in part from a perception that the SIF deals with partner dishonesty more generously than the compensation fund deals with sole practitioner dishonesty. In most cases this difference is more apparent than real. But the risk remains that while joint buyer/lender representation continues, smaller practices will lose instructions from lenders and so from buyers as well.
Sole practitioners will always find clients who value personal service. However, no sole practitioner should believe that the fact of being a sole practitioner entitles him or her to provide service which is less efficient or of a lower standard.
My association with the “cost of default” exercise led many to assume that I wanted to see the end of the sole practitioner. On the contrary, I have always thought that the disappearance of sole practitioners would lead to an unacceptable reduction in the availability of legal advice in many areas.
However, sole practitioners should bear in mind one uncomfortable fact: the very nature of the compensation fund means that most claims on it relate to sole practitioners even though they provide a relatively small proportion of its income.
While it is a tiny minority that gives rise to dishonesty claims, most of the fund's income is provided by that part of the profession which practises in firms where claims on the compensation fund rarely arise.
Even if you look at the claims experience of SIF, you again find that sole practitioners as a group have historically “taken out” rather more than they put in. If this future source of potential division is to be minimised, the Law Society and Solicitors Complaints Bureau must continue to improve.
What should sole practitioners do to improve their future prospects? Many could benefit from developing new methods of mutual support.
There is the “chambers concept” under which a group of sole practitioners retains their individual independence but shares office services and every member is available to support each other when required.
Co-operation of this type might make more accessible those kinds of technology without which I believe that few practices will be able to survive in the future.
John Young is vice president of the Law Society.