Quality standards: help or hindrance?

Rodney Evans believes that the application of properly structured quality standards to the Bar could improve service, but warns that not all sets will agree. Rodney Evans is a principal consultant with Austin Hall Management Consultants.

At the recent conference of the Institute of Barristers' Clerks, Daniel Brennan QC, vice-chairman of the Bar Council, spoke of the need to maintain high standards in the face of Conditional Fee Agreements (CFAs).

"We need to meet the highest standards of practice management and will need to introduce our own kite mark sooner, rather than later," he said. "Chambers which do not achieve such standards may have difficulty in obtaining legal aid under block contracts, and work in the private sector."

Whether there is a need for standards depends on your point of view. The authority setting the standard will be looking for a level of service that meets its clients' aspirations and ensures a consistently high quality.

Those aiming to meet the benchmark will want to know that their systems are good enough or, if not, what needs to be done to put things right. Further, the seal of approval provided shows the world that an establishment has high standards, therefore helping to promote business.

So are the Bar Council standards too tough, too undemanding or just right? They are certainly relevant to the profession and reflect existing best practice. It is important to distinguish between those management systems that lend themselves to standardisation and those that do not.

The handling of briefs, selection and treatment of pupils can (and I believe should) be regulated. Matters such as financial management are less clear. Having comprehensive financial management systems and regular and strategic planning are worthy objectives but they will not suit all sets. Some may be happy to continue with their existing ways.

Standards, if they are to cover all eventualities, must be comprehensive, and this makes them appear daunting. What really matters is how they are interpreted and applied – and this is where the reasoning behind the kite mark comes in.

If a standard is to be respected, independent certification is essential. That is how other quality standards have become established. Correctly pitching the level of certification is crucial if the standard is to be accepted and effective.

The key question is what will sets get out of uniform standards, and what is involved? Meeting a standard offers a golden opportunity to confirm that existing procedures support a good level of service or improve things where necessary.

Effective control, better working methods and increased job satisfaction all flow from a well-designed quality system, and the award of a recognised seal of approval is the icing on the cake.

But achieving new standards within a firm requires a great deal of work from people who are already very busy. Identifying areas for improvement, designing systems, writing procedures and knowing just how far to go to satisfy a standard, are often new skills.

So will standards change anything? My answer is yes – as long as the standard is properly structured and sympathetically applied. The final judgement must be whether the systems needed to meet the standard actually help, or are they just an unnecessary bit of bureaucracy?

This philosophy guides our practice and I commend it to anyone faced with a need to meet quality standards – if it ain't broke, don't fix it.