A blog article originally published by the Legal Compliance Association in June 2017

I am learning to sail. It’s complicated and – if I’m being honest – a little bit of a mystery. There is unfamiliar language; ropes are described as sheets (sometimes), sails have unusual names like genoa, and there is a constant need to trim and reef. It requires teamwork; the yacht needs a competent crew who must pull together (sometimes literally) and understand the part they play in keeping the boat afloat. Knowing that the boat can tilt at peculiar angles without capsizing takes a lot of trust. It’s interesting but scary at the same time.

Experiencing this new world makes me think about law firms and how strange this must seem to someone joining a legal business for the first time. Whether that person is a trainee or newly qualified solicitor, a paralegal, or someone joining the business to provide non-legal skills such as marketing or IT services, they must quickly acquire the language of the industry if they want to be part of the team and they want that team to be successful.

I have often thought that the regulatory and legal acronyms we use would provide enough materials for a pub quiz round. We have in our legal language such abbreviations as SRA, TLS, OFR, RBR, COLP, COFA, NCA, SARs….. The list is endless. We expect everyone to understand these but, quite honestly, why should they if they are new to our world?

The same is true of regulatory and ethical standards. Most employees will want to be good colleagues but will non-lawyers understand that in a law firm this includes the need to sign up to and demonstrate professional behaviours. Actually, why should we assume that they would understand this?  Why should we expect non-lawyers to appreciate the enormous burdens of the duty of confidentiality or the fact that if they promise to do something then this may be regarded as an undertaking?

Law firm managers and compliance professionals must have confidence that all colleagues are team players, neither being fair weather sailors nor sailing so close to the wind that they stop. Safety messages are vital, both to give confidence to the individuals and to ensure that they are effective team players and safe pairs of hands. Vital when you consider that a law firm’s right to open its doors every day is singularly dependent on its continuing authorisation. In other words, not upsetting the regulator is essential.

My view is that everyone must hear the same messages when they join the law firm and that these messages must be communicated and understood from day one. Too often, the induction process is regarded as the responsibility of the human resources team and connected with employment matters. This misses the point that the individual is being inducted into the ways of a regulated business with professional standards and other duties which must be understood.

From day one, the regulatory and ethical messages should include the following:

  • You are working in a regulated business. That’s a different experience from working in an advertising company or department store or wherever you last worked.
  • The SRA is interested in everyone in the law firm and anyone could find themselves having to explain their actions to the regulator.
  • Even solicitors do not have unlimited rights; these individuals only get a certificate and the right to practice for a year at a time.
  • Clients must have confidence in law firms. We keep their secrets (ok, most of the time and we do need to explain the legal exceptions to this concept), we put client interests first, our word is our bond, we don’t allow anything or anyone to cloud our judgement. We are expected to behave professionally.
  • That holding other people’s money is a big deal. Clients need to be able to trust us to keep their money safe and there are complicated regulatory hoops we need to jump through.
  • Things go wrong. An email will be sent to the wrong person and the knee-jerk reaction must not be to try and hide that fact.
  • The firm has compliance officers with very particular roles in ensuring that things that go wrong are recorded and that conversations are started with the SRA at the right time. It’s important to know who the COLP and COFA are.
  • It’s equally important to know that managers and compliance officers are not telepathic so how to, and when to, tell them about things that have gone wrong, or worry the individual, is important.

I could go on, but you get the picture. It’s dangerous to assume that everyone in the firm will join with an appropriate understanding of what matters and the role which they are expected to play in keeping the firm open. The benefits of taking the time to explain such points cannot be underestimated. Happy sailing!