Leaders In Practice Management Excellence

(Reproduced with kind permission of Lexcel Link/Law Society).

Long gone are the days of local niche legal practices simply sitting back and allowing orderly queues of customers to form outside  their doors. Today’s discerning prospective consumer of legal services is likely to invest far more time in sourcing and scrutinising potential providers than his or her historic counterpart.Demonstrating a commitment to quality and high standards of customer service within a practice has never been more important in attracting new clients.The clearest sign (in both senses of the meaning of the word) to the would-be client of a firm of such high standards is the Lexcel standard.

Fairweathers, is a two partner firm in Kent which was established in April 2006 and specialises in clinical negligence, personal injury, family, employment and mental health law. Following the initial excitement and the incredible amount of work that was required to set up the firm, the decision was taken that the practice should work towards both Lexcel and ISO 2001 accreditation.

The Lexcel Practice Excellence Kit was duly purchased and a local management consultant was engaged to assist in formalising all of the firm’s procedures and systems in the manner best compatible with the standards required. Early on, the firm had to decide whether the preparation of its manual of policies and procedures should be undertaken by individuals from within it or whether this should fall to the external consultant. While the consultant was expertly versed in the requirements of the standards and attuned with the expectations of external assessors, they were not intimately acquainted with the firm’s existing systems nor wedded to our vision for the future.

Whilst the cost implications of each option were keenly considered, the overriding determining factor was the desire of the firm to produce not merely a set of documents to pass an  assessment but a user-friendly exposition of the practice’s ethos and guide to operations. We opted to prepare our own bespoke manual with guidance from the consultant rather than handing over the reins altogether.

Once the task of re-writing the manual began, it quickly became apparent that most of the requirements of Lexcel were already enshrined within existing policies and practise. This was due to the firm being built upon a foundation of commitment to the highest standards of customer service and already holding Specialist Quality Mark status with the Legal Services Commission.

By involving all members of staff in the formalisation of policy and procedures a real sense of empowerment was devolved. This extended to individual members of the firm being allowed the freedom to provide insight and input to areas that would directly impact upon their daily work.

Without this vital input from all staff, the project would have failed.  Perhaps not failed in the sense of not achieving accreditation, but failed in terms of not bringing the entire team into the process to provide the best framework for operating the firm both now and into the future.

It was originally planned that formal assessment would be sought in Autumn 2007. However, with the announcement of the new Lexcel v4 standard, plans were altered and it was decided that the firm would attempt to become the first to achieve the new standard by delaying assessment until January 2008, despite evaluation against the new standard not becoming mandatory until June 2008.

Further work was required to meet the  demands of the new standard but this was only by way of minor revisions rather than reinventing the wheel.

The most useful and essential part of the preparatory process was a day long mock assessment conducted by the external consultant. A number of elements that required fine tuning were identified and rectified as a result.

Formal assessment of the firm was conducted on 2 and 3 January and at the end of the audit the feedback received was almost exclusively positive. The arrival of the Lexcel certificate shortly after and confirmation that Fairweathers was the first firm in the country to achieve the new standard was complete vindication of the effort made by all.

The firm now proudly wears its Lexcel badge on letterheads and marketing material. Whilst Lexcel demands nothing more than what any well run, modern legal practice should already be doing, it provides an excellent framework within which plans and policies can be devised and periodically reviewed. It signals to clients, staff and the wider world that accredited firms are committed to providing top quality, customer focused services.

Since achieving accreditation, Fairweathers has not received any complaints from clients and expects to see a reduction in its professional indemnity premium.

Darren Tamplin is a Clinical Negligence Partner at Fairweathers.