Quality control – the key to success

Traditionally, quality management and its associated systems and standards belonged within manufacturing environments, where conformance to specifications was always paramount. Even when service businesses embraced the idea of quality in the mid-1980s, the focus was on frontline customer care-style “smile training”. Indeed, the quality of the service product or its processes were rarely considered.

Quality standards in service businesses are often seen as a triumph of bureaucracy over substance. It is often hard to see the benefit of much of their requisite record keeping. Does accreditation really make for a quality business, or does it merely enable a poor business to continue thus more efficiently? In chambers, this is especially true when the “product” is a unique solution to an individual problem.

This view, though, misses the point. If the objective of any business is efficiency, maximising returns, using information for commercial benefit and exploiting market opportunities, then well-documented management protocols are essential.

Issues of quality in practice management are coming to the fore for both law firms and barristers’ chambers. For example, solicitors’ firms wishing to conduct legally-aided work under a contract are obliged to comply with the Legal Services Commission’s (LSC) own franchise quality-assurance standard as a minimum. The Law Society launched Lexcel in 1998, and the Bar Council launched its own BarMark last year to establish industry-specific quality standards. There are also the ISO9001 and the Investors in People guidelines.

The LSC is developing the Quality Mark for the Community Legal Service, and is already working on a module created specifically for the bar. But are any of the alternatives as yet sufficiently demanding in that they meet the evolving requirements of clients, whatever form the client takes?

The primary objective of any effective quality system is surely to create a process of improvement. This should help assure both the business and the client that predictable service levels will be achieved at knowable costs and, where possible, with a degree of predictability of outcome. This is where the real benefits will be seen, with reduced costs, more work retained and, subsequently, more satisfied clients.

Another benefit is the control of, overheads, clerking activity, staff development and credit management, enabling the implementation of effective improvements.

One area of major difficulty for an effective quality system in chambers is auditability. Given the nature of barristers’ practices, peer review audits by colleagues are difficult. Procedural reviews are one thing, but substantive reviews of a case’s legal content are something else altogether.

The answers to many of the questions that quality accreditation raises may lie in the creative use of some existing frameworks and the development of some simple mechanisms. For chambers operating through practice groups, internal standards for group membership would assure an internal consistency of delivery, which would apply to substantive know-how of case-type knowledge and to continuous professional education and procedural performance standards, all of which would be clearly auditable.

Franchised solicitors are already required to rate the performance of their experts (including counsel) and to justify the reasons for instructions being given (or for experts being removed from their approved list). This is audited by the LSC. It would be a short step for solicitors to extend that loop for feedback on counsel direct to chambers. This data would then go into the internal audit process, which is essential to any quality-management system.

The quality of advocacy is more testing. One idea might be to implement a process of exception reporting by judges, where they note when advocates are either ill prepared or cause the court to waste time or money through poor performance.

Audit failure against any of these criteria by an individual barrister would inevitably affect the accreditation of a chambers as a whole, so the issue of internal standards is vitally important in terms of transparent self-regulation/audit.

Of course, accreditation to any quality standard does not on its own make one a quality supplier, and neither does it guarantee a quality product; but any organisation prepared to be regularly and independently audited against rigorous and meaningful criteria must surely be in a better competitive position when clients are considering their options.

Vincent Denham is chief executive of St Philip’s Chambers in Birmingham.