Last week, Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson formally launched the Society’s new accreditation scheme for wills and inheritance work at the Private Client Section’s annual conference. The Wills and Inheritance Quality Scheme (WIQS) is open to practices regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority which offer will-drafting, probate and estate administration services. It will begin receiving applications on 31 October.

Plans for the scheme had been well trailed, with the Society announcing its intention to set up a specialist accreditation for this area of work last year. Speaking at the conference, Hudson (pictured) acknowledged that the proposals had come under attack from some members of the profession, and that not all private client solicitors believed there was a need for the scheme. He said even his own solicitor had told him that, in the private client field, solicitors had a ‘natural hold’ on the market. But Hudson warned that this was ‘not a very prudent planning assumption’.

Figures from the Probate Service indicate that solicitors’ share of the probate market has been in decline since 2006, with clients doing more for themselves or using other providers. Whereas only 27% of grants of probate were made without solicitors in 2006, this had risen to 36% by 2010.

Hudson highlighted the entrance of major consumer brands - including Saga, the AA and the Co-op - as a real game changer in the private client market, with online document providers such as Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom posing a further threat.

‘These are significant drivers for change,’ he said. ‘If you were Saga, you would exploit your brand. If you were the AA, you would sweat that asset.’

Hudson admitted that the Law Society’s own brand does not compete directly with these consumer giants, but he said research had shown that it does have real credence in the market. ‘We can build a national brand for you to compete with those national brands,’ he said.

The Society’s chief also pointed to another threat looming large on the horizon – plans by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) to become a probate regulator. This would potentially enable 140,000 chartered accountants to offer reserved probate services by the end of the year. The Society has written to the Legal Services Board to point out ‘flaws’ in the ICAEW’s application, concerning the need for separation between the regulatory and representative functions of the accountancy body. Hudson told the conference it will be pushing hard for the Legal Services Board to make ‘the right decision’ over the accountants’ application to regulate probate work.

Answering criticsThe plans for a wills and inheritance accreditation scheme have met with a mixed response from solicitors. Hudson remarked that he had seen a number of criticisms of the scheme from lawyers who had posted comments on the Gazette website, and he addressed these directly.

He acknowledged that, by introducing a specialist accreditation, there was an implication that being a solicitor may no longer be enough in this market. He said: ‘I take no pleasure in that. I do not advocate that position. I don’t want that to be the case. But I do not serve your interests if [we] do not face up to reality. Planning as though being a solicitor is not enough is the right approach to take.’

He also tackled the issue of cost. ‘There will be some who say that this is simply an exercise in money-making by the Society,’ he said. ‘But that is not true. The issue is, what do you do in these changed times, in this changed market? This is about positioning solicitors as the natural place to go, and ensuring that the role of solicitors is vital in the market… Not everyone liked the Conveyancing Quality Scheme, but how much worse would it have been [for conveyancers] if we had not done that?’

While membership of CQS was in part propelled by the need to comply with lenders’ requirements for membership of their legal panels, that driver is absent in private client work. But the scheme has been broadly welcomed by members of the Private Client Section, who voted overwhelming in favour of it in an online poll carried out by the Society last year. For the specialist practitioners, the quality mark offers an opportunity to distinguish themselves from ‘dabblers’ within the profession who deal with wills and inheritance matters more infrequently, and may lack in-depth knowledge of the issues. The scheme’s intention is to drive standards up; an ambition that is generally welcomed by the specialists.

A client care protocol for WIQS has been drawn up with input from practitioners, but is not yet finalised, and members still have an opportunity to contribute their comments. As with CQS, firms will lose the accreditation if they do not comply with the required standards on an ongoing basis.

Firms that achieve accreditation will receive marketing materials and support from the Society, will be able to use the accreditation logo, and will be listed on the website.

Concluding his speech to the conference, Hudson said: ‘The Legal Services Board is unashamedly focused on driving increased competition into this market. That is what it is about.

‘We need to get ready for these changes, and the opportunities that present themselves… The scheme we have created is credible, it is realistic, and it is probably the only alternative.’