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Solicitors Regulation Authority publishes Residential Conveyancing thematic review

A review about the service provided by solicitors to the public

Executive summary

Buying and selling a property is often the most expensive and important financial commitment a person makes in their life. Having access to reliable and good quality legal support really matters. It not only reduces stress and uncertainty, but potentially directly impacts on whether a purchase is completed, and what the long-term financial implications may be for all involved.

While most property transactions are completed relatively seamlessly, figures from the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) show that residential conveyancing accounted for nearly a quarter of all complaints it handled over the past three years.

Our own research of consumers, conducted in 2018, also identified that up to a quarter of recent home buyers were dissatisfied with some element of the service they received from their solicitor. One common area of concern was an apparent failure to fully explain the detail and implications of contractual commitments.

What we did

We carried out this thematic review to better understand how firms are delivering residential conveyancing services, and whether they are fulfilling their obligations to their clients.

We visited a sample of 40 law firms offering residential conveyancing services and conducted a detailed review of 80 case files.

What we found

We found that most firms were fulfilling their obligations. In particular, we found that:

  • all firms proactively communicated with clients at all key stages of a purchase, with the majority meeting them face-to-face at least once
  • all firms provided clients with clear information on their complaints procedures
  • firms are increasingly embracing technology, especially regarding how they communicate with clients.

However, we did identify areas for improvement. The two most significant and widespread were:

  • inaccurate initial cost estimates – 34% of firms failed to include all the services/fees a matter could reasonably expect to attract in their initial quotes
  • not being open about the real cost of third-party disbursement and their firm’s mark-up on these – specifically telegraphic transfers. In 37% of cases firms failed to do this, with some charging up to 10 times the actual bank charge for processing the transfer.

Other areas where we identified potential concerns included:

  • not processing paperwork efficiently – especially in relation to requisitions raised by HM Land Registry
  • not explaining the difference between freehold and leasehold ownership
  • failing to double-check that a client understands the long-term implications of contractual obligations and fees.

Conclusions

This review clearly found that in the majority of cases, conveyancing firms actively engage with their clients and fulfil their obligations to them. Property deals progress in a timely and efficient manner and clients feel informed and supported throughout.

But sadly, this is not always the case.

Whether its providing unrealistic or incomplete quotes, or failing to make sure contractual information has been fully understood, solicitors are potentially leaving their clients exposed to significant risk or potential financial hardship.

Next steps

This thematic review took place during 2018. In December the same year, we introduced new transparency rules which require firms offering conveyancing services to publish detailed price and services information, and their complaints procedures online.

The requirement to provide clear pricing information was not new. However, these rules, and associated guidance, now provide the profession with absolute clarity on our expectations for how they should be publishing price information.

These requirements include:

  • outlining all known and potential costs a transaction may attract from the outset
  • specifying all charges being added to the actual cost of any third-party disbursements.

As part of our ongoing work, we will continue to review compliance with these rules and will consider further action where necessary to make sure they are being followed.

On the specific subject of making sure solicitors explain contractual details to clients, especially in relation to leaseholds, we urge all firms to make sure that their clients understand their obligations. If we find evidence that people were not made aware of onerous clauses in their leasehold contracts, such as the regular doubling of ground rents, we will take robust action.

Following this review, we referred six firms onto our internal disciplinary processes. Five of these referrals included concerns about failing to declare that the stated telegraphic transfers fees included an additional charge/mark-up.

Read the full report here

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Four steps legal regulators can take to embrace their data

Data has always been a foundational part of the practice of law. However, the convenience, accessibility, and speed of digital mediums is transforming the discipline from within. Law firms are stepping up the plate leveraging their internal data, as well as industry data to make their practice and delivery of services more efficient and effective. E-Discovery, case predictive technologies and even fledgling artificial intelligence programmes are proliferating across top firms globally. Small and large firms alike are engaging with varying degrees of software to manage information and leverage its value.

It is time legal regulators attempt to match pace. This month ICLR.net is focusing on how legal regulators can start to think about data’s role in improving their regulatory responsibilities. We have identified four preliminary steps to help your institution to start thinking about leveraging data.

1. Start small and close to home: Identify your data sources

Identify consistent incoming sources of data. This may be lawyer registrations, renewals and fees. This “low hanging fruit” often serves as the fundamental data base, which can yield insights such as lawyer demographics and disciplinary patterns.

2. Clean and organise your data

Unwieldy spreadsheets no longer make the grade. Setting your organisation up for success means treating your data properly and preparing it for utilisation. Categorising and cleaning your data in a consistent manner will make things easier down the road. Data should be stored in a clear and structured format, which is both secure and shareable with appropriate access permissions.

3. Collaborate with those who know data

Some institutions may want to call the professionals in from day one. Smaller organisations may be able to tackle the first two steps on their own, but to begin to leverage analytics really requires a professional touch for the best results. You should be looking for a company specialises in data structures and analytics. The legal tech sector is rich with software providers offering data management products, but working with a professional in selecting the best fit for your organisation’s data or building a unique system is what will ensure success. It is key to work with someone with the skills as well as background knowledge and insights into the legal profession and industry.

4. Fostering a data-driven culture

Legal information and data powerhouse Thomson Reuters puts it best:

“Building a data-driven legal practice is not something you assign to a task force, department, or an individual. It requires a buy-in from everyone from the top leadership down.”

In addition, it is worth saying that employees at all levels should be involved in the data system development process, to ensure compatibility and realistic adoption and utilisation of the system. The human resource is what will bring an organisation the strongest return on any data investment.

Is data analytics for your organisation?

Some regulators may believe they are too small or the resource required to harness data is too great. However, these four steps can be completed at various levels, just as law firms of all sizes are engaging in data tools. Ultimately, it will be a matter of survival for regulators to keep pace with those they regulate. Information has a strong multiplier effect, and data analytics has the power to transform regulation and industry’s productivity as a whole.


We are interested in hearing about how your institution is using data to assist in regulation. Let us know! Interested in the power of data in regulation – get involved at this year’s annual conference. Contact Jim McKay (jamesmckay@lawscot.org.uk) to become involved as a speaker or session moderator. 

Platform Economy in Legal Profession: An Empirical Study on Online Legal Service Providers in China

Platform economy breaks into the legal profession by pooling lawyers with different specializations into a simple user-friendly platform, consolidating the lower-tier supply side of the legal market and generating economy of scale. This paper is the very first empirical piece looking into China’s online legal service portals. It is found that, the intermediary functions of the portals as the “matchmaker” between the supply and the demand side are often commingled with certain substantive legal services, which cannot be easily unbundled from each other. Given the grand information asymmetry in legal service provision and the potential importance the users may attach to the portals’ recommendation, the quality of such intermediation and matchmaking still leaves to be desired. This being said, because the portals help to improve the access to justice in China by virtue of offering an EXTRA channel for acquiring and comparing potentially useful information, which is made available at a much lower cost than visiting a physical law firm, the regulator should strive to improve the quality, rather than block up the source of the information. To that end, this paper proposes, based on the inspiration of the ABS regime, an alternative license for these online legal service providers, which imposes minimum regulatory and leaves room for new innovative business structures to evolve.

Full Paper Available Here

Jing Li, Tilburg University – Department of Business Law

Regulating Law Firms from the Inside: The Role of Compliance Officers for Legal Practice in England and Wales

Following the Legal Services Act 2007, which permitted the delivery of legal services through Alternative Business Structures (ABS), the Solicitors Regulation Authority required all regulated legal service firms to appoint Compliance Officers for Legal Practice (COLPs). COLPs are charged with taking reasonable steps to ensure that firms comply with their obligations, which entails interpreting what outcomes‐focused regulation (OFR) requires of the firm. Yet despite their importance, little is known about how compliance roles operate within legal service firms. We addressed this gap through a series of qualitative interviews that explored COLPs’ views of their roles, their attitudes to regulation, in particular to OFR, and to achieving compliance. We found that COLPs are a key regulatory mechanism in the context of firm‐based regulation and OFR and have a critical role to play in protecting and promoting professional values in both ABS and non‐ABS entities.

Full Paper Available Here

Sundeep Aulakh, University of Leeds – Work and Employment Relations & Joan Loughrey, University of Leeds

Netherlands Bar Association launches research into innovation and digitalization in the legal profession

More than 1,300 lawyers participated in the recent NOvA survey on strategy, innovation and digitization. The results will be published after the summer. The survey is part of a broader investigation into developments affecting the future of the legal profession in the Netherlands, which the NOvA is expected to complete by the end of this year.

Changes in society such as globalization, digitization and increased cost awareness can have consequences for the administration of justice and the activities of lawyers in it. The adjustment to these developments can demand a lot from individual lawyers. Because of the essential function in a democratic constitutional state, the NOvA wants to contribute to the future-proof nature of the legal profession.

Approach
With the research into the digitization and competitive strength of the legal profession, the NOvA wants to map which developments are important for lawyers (offices). In addition to the survey, we conduct desk research, visit lawyers and organize group discussions.

Survey
With the survey, the NOvA wants to gain insight into the themes that are relevant to lawyers (offices), as well as their needs, possibilities and barriers to innovating their practice. Moreover, the results can show the extent to which the legal profession prepares for changes in the legal services with regard to the organization and digitization of the law firm.

Interviews
Through (group) discussions with lawyers and law firm employees, a better picture is obtained of the state of affairs of the Dutch legal profession. This includes opportunities and threats, the changing needs and expectations of customers and the role of regulation. The working method of progressive law firms is further analyzed.

Outcomes
Finally, an assessment is made of the impact of developments on the proper administration of justice. With the results of the research, the NOvA wants to determine which task and assignment it has. Depending on this, the NOvA will then develop policy on this.

Visit the NOvA

Legal Services Regulation at the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society: a progress update

The journey to Legal Services Regulation (LSR) has taken a major step with the November 17, 2017 approval by Council of several regulatory amendments to advance the Society’s initiatives. The result is a model of regulating legal services that is risk focused, proactive, principled and proportionate. Key components of the regime and the impacts on law firms are outlined on the NSBS website.

The NSBS continues to work with government so that amendments to the Legal Profession Act will be introduced in the spring of 2018. With the proposed provisions, the Society will then have the full range of authority required to fully implement the policies previously approved by Council to enable better promotion of the public interest and the expansion of innovative legal services.

An essential component of the Society’s transformed Legal Services Regulation framework is an enhanced focus on risk. By risk, the NSBS means ensuring that:

  • lawyers and firms are able to achieve the ten elements of a management system for ethical legal practice;
  • lawyers engage in conduct that reduces risks to the public; and
  • the Society identifies and responds to these risks in a proactive, principled and proportionate way, and achieves their Regulatory Objectives and Outcomes.

Developing and embedding a risk focus in the Society’s regulatory work is unfolding on a variety of levels, requiring both internal and external culture changes, as well as changing the conversation with lawyers to offer support and to work collaboratively to reduce risk.

Read more about the NSBS approach to risk and the steps that are underway to embed a risk-focused approach in their regulatory system.

Adopting Law Firm Management Systems to Survive and Thrive: A Study of the Australian Approach to Management-Based Regulation

In Australia, amendments to the Legal Profession Act require that incorporated legal practices (ILPs) implement ‘appropriate management systems’ to assure compliance with the Legal Profession Act 2004, and  appoint a legal practitioner director to be responsible for the management of the ILP.

The new law did not define ‘appropriate management systems’ (AMS) so the Office of Legal Services Commissioner for New South Wales worked with representatives of other organizations and practitioners to develop guidelines and an approach for evaluating compliance. This involved the designated director completing a self-assessment process (SAP), evaluating the ILP’s compliance with ten specific objectives of sound legal practice.

To evaluate the new regulatory regime, Professor Susan Fortney conducted a mixed method empirical study of incorporated law firms in New South Wales Australia. In Phase One of the study, all incorporated law firms with two or more solicitors were surveyed. In Phase Two, legal services directors were interested. This article discusses the survey findings, focusing on the relationship between the self-assessment process and the ethics norms, systems, conduct, and culture in firms.

Fortney, Susan Saab and Gordon, Tahlia Ruth, Adopting Law Firm Management Systems to Survive and Thrive: A Study of the Australian Approach to Management-Based Regulation (January 22, 2013). St. Thomas Law Review, Forthcoming; Hofstra Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 13-02. Read the article at SSRN

The Role of Ethics Audits in Improving Management Systems and Practices: An Empirical Examination of Management-Based Regulation of Law Firms

Using management-based principles, this Article discusses steps to take to encourage ethics audits ‘to merge good ethics and good business’ in the United States of America.

For decades, legal malpractice experts have urged lawyers to implement risk management measures, and legal malpractice insurers have provided audit services and self-audit materials. Under the Australian regulatory regime, incorporated legal practices are required to complete a self-assessment process and to report on the firm’s compliance with ten objectives of sound law practice. The article explains the foundational role that ethics assessments can play in reducing lawyers’ liability while improving the delivery of legal services.

Susan Saab Fortney, The Role of Ethics Audits in Improving Ethical Conduct in Law Firms: An Empirical Examination, 4 St. Mary’s J. Legal Mal. & Ethics 112 (2014)
Read the article at: http://scholarlycommons.law.hofstra.edu/faculty_scholarship/489