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Translating risk management into fee-earner language

Translating risk management into fee-earner language


Risk management is good business sense, and if done well, compliance with the SRA rule book will be a natural consequence, explains Heather McCallum

For many lawyers, risk management and compliance can feel frustrating, admin-heavy, and even restrictive. To avoid culture clash, it’s worth framing a stronger understanding between fee earners and risk managers, and shaping systems to achieve a balance between bureaucracy and protection. Here, I look at some of the most common frustrations I hear from fee earners.

Risk management is at the heart of what we do because it makes good business sense, and if we do it well, compliance with the SRA rule book will be a natural result.

There’s no need to reference the code of conduct in saying we want good quality clients who pay on time, without any conflicts of interest or complaints. As they’re generally closer to the potential impact, senior fee earners can see how positive attitudes towards client checking can make a stronger, better firm. But it’s important that scenario-based training helps all staff to appreciate the reasons for risk management.

  • ‘I’m good at practising law – surely that is what counts, not file management ability?’

Managing a client case demands more than just technical skills. Claims rarely relate to getting the law wrong; it’s more likely a delay or administrative oversight. Through our LawNet ISO and Lexcel accreditations, we have bi-annual assessments and undertake regular file audits and this focus is a factor in the strong results recorded in our administrative processes.

But where fee earners are struggling with the admin, then systems may need reviewing. Are good quality client care letters available and easily tailored for specific client or work types, and does the diary system support fee earners to help them meet key dates and deadlines?

Agile working can bring additional problems. We have a simple automatic electronic filing system for emails, but you can’t file from a hand-held device, so we are looking at ways to tackle that.

  • ‘I need to bring in new business to prove myself and get promotion – where’s the risk in that?’

For a senior solicitor, the objective may be to grow their client base and demonstrate a case for partnership, but business development can sometimes clash with risk management. Some lawyers remain unaware of cold calling rules or pay insufficient attention to potential conflicts of interest with clients of another department.

There also need to be robust client intake processes in place before any work starts. Again, this should support business growth and go a long way towards reducing complaints, by having good quality clients who are going to pay on time, do not fail a conflict check, and are someone the firm wants to work with.With the right support, it should be simple to engage in business development that targets the right clients. Risk management should be an integral part of effective client development, not an obstacle.

  • ‘Technology should be making my job easier, not harder’

Frustration is voiced with IT for all sorts of reasons. Younger, digital-native lawyers may feel practices are Dickensian, while busy senior staff may wonder why there’s no simple tech solution to their particular issue.

It may be frustrating to be stopped from using your own device without restriction, but it increases the potential for data breaches. Similarly, there are often IT solutions to issues, but if we are over-reliant on technology there’s a chance we may stop thinking proactively about risk. For the firm, it’s about balancing technology as an enabler with the necessary controls.

Together with other LawNet members we’re putting cyber essentials accreditation in place. It’s going to help protect our business, and should reassure clients that we are proactively protecting their information. But I will need to work with those staff who will no doubt be frustrated by some of the additional controls required.

  • ‘You can’t get it right for every client, every time ‘

When someone needs a lawyer, they are often at a stressful point and sometimes that gets forgotten. We need to put ourselves in their shoes and use complaints as a source of feedback and learning.

Are you thinking about each client as an individual and making sure the approach and language is adapted to suit? Being proactive when things go awry can make a huge difference too; much better to pick up the phone than hide behind defensive emails.

Excellent client care is vital for any business today, and when lawyers embrace it, you aid risk management and support compliance. Differentiate your service to win and retain clients, and this will easily support the code of conduct that requires you to act in the best interests of your clients.

Heather McCallum is head of risk at IBB Solicitors