Since being introduced to Lexcel in 1999, I have worked on a number of levels with the quality framework. I have seen it take different directions within practices that I have attained and maintained Lexcel for. Key to my understanding of these differences has been attaining an MA in Practice Management in 2006, hence my first question to any law practice considering Lexcel is – “Why Do You Want The Award?”
These days with the increasing involvement of external professional marketing services and business management specialists, Lexcel can slip down the agenda and may disappear off the management radar altogether. In this post I argue that Lexcel, as the legal profession’s own unique quality standard award, has a central purpose and relevance for law practices and can transform not only quality standards, but also the management and marketing of a law firm.
In attaining and retaining the Lexcel quality standard, a law practice will be setting out on a journey of reviewing and hopefully improving its management practices and procedures. I have seen that a further less known but important affect is that through following Lexcel’s framework, a law firm can explore and identify its own unique journey of continuous improvement which can resonate and take affect through every aspect of managing the law firm as a business to the benefit of clients, partners, employees and other business partners.
When working with quality standards, there are different journeys or approaches that a law practice can choose and continue to identify with as they follow the Lexcel framework, which I explain below as “benchmark”, “baseline” or “compliance”. When asking the question “why do we want to achieve the Lexcel standard?” management should decide which type of journey it wishes to undertake, both when working toward Lexcel and in subsequent years. Neither approach is wrong, and indeed can change, however there are different potential repercussions and rewards that may result from following each one.
This involves using Lexcel solely to meet their prescribed standards. This could limit a practice due to the two classic problems:
Firstly, a practice will only be seen as being as good as its competitors who hold the award.
Secondly, because all awarded practices have reached the prescribed standard, no competitive advantage is apparent.
In other words the commonly used phrase that Lexcel is a “tick box” exercise can arguably be justified. If a practice takes a benchmark approach, over time, it risks becoming static and department focused in its vision and development.
This is because the law firm’s procedures and any changes are implemented primarily to satisfy the assessment criteria, with the benefit of such procedure or change never quite being fully shared or understood by the wider practice or reaching the client, be they internal or external to the practice.
This describes an approach where the law firm links the assessment criteria with its business planning at a strategic level by looking at the benefit of Lexcel for its clients, employees and organisational aims – commonly known by managers as “looking at the big picture”.
If a practice takes this baseline approach it can better understand and communicate to both clients and employees its strategic aims and direction, while diligently implementing incremental improvements to establish new baselines as a regular part of the strategic management process.
A key dynamic of the baseline approach is the impact it will have on a practice’s management, drawing in all aspects of management into the strategic planning process. This is crucial if incremental improvement is to be sustained in order to deliver quality performance at every level of operation of a practice.
The main advantage of baseline over benchmark is that a practice is more likely to facilitate incremental change throughout the whole of the supply chain (its operation) and thereby gain a competitive advantage because it is now viewing its position within the wider business and professional environment.
A risk with the baseline approach is that, without a full understanding of the dynamic of strategic planning necessary to implement continuous improvement, a practice can very soon fall back to a state of benchmarking.
Additionally, since the change to outcomes focused regulation in 2007, practices could be using Lexcel as a compliance framework and audit.
Though Lexcel has not been marketed as such, the criteria detailed in the Lexcel standard may be being viewed by practices as a means of ensuring compliance with (if not completely in part) the SRA’s Code of Conduct in substitution for the formal practice rules, guidance and legislation that existed for solicitors in “The Guide to the Professional Conduct of Solicitors” prior to the 2007 change.
The most recent updated versions v5 (2011) and v6 (2014) of Lexcel have notably removed the requirement of having a quality policy which was last a requirement in v4 (2008), raising the question of whether the original intention of Lexcel as a being a quality standard has fallen out of focus.
Which route to take?
Whichever form of journey of continuous incremental improvement a practice chooses to take it will not be the assessment by the assessor itself that will determine the success of the desired outcome for the practice.
The assessor will look at the practice meeting the assessment criteria, therefore both benchmark and baseline will be adequate for assessment purposes. To succeed on their chosen journey, a practice must learn, interpret, understand, plan, implement and monitor strategies to enhance the assessment criteria to its own individual need and purpose.
I hope that the above will give a new insight as to how Lexcel can support your law practice. Personally I believe that although each approach above has great merits and potential, the baseline approach has the potential to deliver most rewards and change to a law firm. I have seen first hand how this can enable a law practice to stand out from its competitors and consistently delivering excellence to clients, employees and business partners – probably the best form of marketing available.
Author: Paul Wood, MA, Practice Manager / Director.
Date: 06 June 2016.
About the Author, Paul has over 38 years of experience and knowledge in private practice with the last 17 being a practice manager / director. He studied for his MA titled ” Developing a Law Firm using Lexcel 2004″ while in fulltime employment. Paul was a guest speaker at the LMS Lexcel Annual Forum (2008) talking about “The Reality of Quality Standards”. As a freelance and independent practice manager and mentor Paul offers law practices his experience and expertise in legal practice management support.
Link to Paul’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/paul-wood-535b328b