A definite link between clients’ interests being put at risk and law firms struggling with their finances has been found in Steering the course, new research by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
The study looked at 76 firms that had suffered financial difficulty, and while it identified the early warning signs for firms, it also uncovered a clear correlation between financial difficulty and the misuse of client monies. Evidence of misuse or misappropriation of client monies was found in more than a quarter of those firms studied.
Firms have a responsibility under Principle 8 to run their business “effectively and in accordance with proper governance and sound financial and risk management principles”. The research set out to explore the SRA’s experience of financial difficulty in firms, explore the extent to which there were failings to adhere to Principle 8, and identify good and bad behaviours in firms’ business practices.
The research, which the SRA acknowledges was only a small sample, did find some unsurprising themes, including:
In nearly 40 per cent of cases, the firms’ situation was caused by poor financial and business management. Examples of this included autocratic management, partner drawings in excess of cash takings, and failure to control billing
Further analysis showed firms were vulnerable if they offered niche, specialist services, while there were dangers for those firms that did try to diversify if they did not plan sufficiently
Less than half of firms said that adverse economic conditions were a key driver of firm failure. This shows that the majority of financial failures were due to factors beyond their control. So while financial difficulty does create regulatory problems for a number of practices, it does not follow that a practice running into financial difficulty is because it has failed to uphold Principle 8
In more than a fifth of cases, a key partner leaving was a significant contributor, highlighting the need for firms to have contingency plans in place
Failure to pay service providers can lead to adverse impacts on clients, for example if the creditor was the landlord who could lock employees out of the building
Steering the course now forms part of the SRA’s risk resources and sits alongside other publications that identify risks for firms, including Navigating stormy seas, which highlights issues that could cause financial problems.
Mike Haley, SRA Director of Supervision, said: “Tough economic times can sometimes lead ethical and upstanding solicitors to stray from the straight and narrow. They think that because they are breaking the rules for the best of intentions – to keep the firm afloat – that this is somehow acceptable. That is simply not the case.
“It is not our job to tell solicitors how to run their firms, but we do need to be kept informed if there are financial difficulties so we can make sure client interests are not put at risk. Our concern is to ensure that when a firm is in financial difficulty that client monies are not misused, and to oversee the orderly transfer or closure of a firm in a way that means client matters are dealt with properly.
“We’d urge all firms to seek a regular financial health check and get financial advice as soon as they believe they are in trouble.”