Warm words are great, but it will take time to win round solicitors.
The SRA has produced more recondite material in the last three years than Lord Justice Jackson has probably seen in a lifetime.
I’ve heard leaders often bemoan the fact that many solicitors are unaware of what is happening in the marketplace – but unless any of them have the kind of masochistic streak that forces them to read SRA papers in full, who can blame them?
But with its discussion paper on how to improve its reputation among small firms, the SRA might finally have produced something of note.
The crux of the problem is that small firms feel alienated, ignored or persecuted by their regulator. They see SRA bosses grinning and posing with scrolls for multinational corporate ABSs, they encounter regulation completely disproportionate to their size and they perceive that large firms are largely allowed to go about their business unhindered.
All of which, pretty much, is about right.
What is wrong is the perception that the SRA ‘has it in’ for small firms. I’ve never sensed that to be the case – at worst they are ignorant of the issues faced by them, but there is no cabal in The Cube plotting the downfall of all firms barring the top 10 and a handful of massive ABSs. They don’t want any firm to fail.
The discussion paper is quite unusual for the SRA in that it proposes practical solutions to a problem. They include a dedicated contact point, a separate section on the website and supervision officers trained and instructed to deal only with small firms.
Best of all, there is recognition that the COLP and COFA system – whereby every firm has to go through the rigmarole of nominating officers – cannot be one-size-fits-all. Instead, small firms are likely to be given the freedom to name their COLPs and COFAs as part of the mySRA authorisation process.
Many of these changes can be attributed to new chief executive Paul Philip, an instantly impressive and warm figure, who has been on a tour of the country in his 10 months in post.
He has listened and built relationships with solicitors and the landscape is much changed from a year ago.
The problem, as ever remains trust. When the SRA wrongly sent out notices to law firms thought to be without PII, much of Philip’s good work was undone.
Here was the return of the sledgehammer SRA, acting without an understanding of the consequences and suffering a major clerical malfunction. Back to square one.
It takes a long time to build trust and a single email to break it. Solicitors at small firms will take a lot of persuading before they feel they can pick up the phone to the SRA. But the relationship is less toxic as of today, and that’s a starting point at least.
John Hyde is a Gazette reporter