Pity the private client lawyer. Years of law school, years of training, years of hard-earned post-qualification exams – and someone down the pub still thinks he knows how to do your job better than you.
Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling drew gasps of dismay earlier this year when he blithely disregarded the Legal Services Board and decided not to make Will writing a reserved activity. This means that people who aren’t lawyers are allowed do it.
Instead, the Law Society is introducing a new Wills and Inheritance Quality Scheme (WIQS). The scheme was unveiled last week in a record-breaking webinar (easily outstripping previous Law Society webinars by attracting 719 listeners at its peak).
The aim of WIQS, according to the Law Society, is to differentiate those practitioners who know their codicil from their elbow from those who merely dabble, which should enable clients to make more informed choices.
The problem with writing Wills is that many perceive it to be easy to do and they don’t see why they should have to pay someone to fill in a form for them. As a result, more Wills are found to be invalid and more estates end up in court and on the front page of newspapers. This may be good news for contentious probate lawyers, but not so great news for clients.
In fact, Central Law Training (CLT), which is one of the UK’s leading legal training providers, runs a “private client conversion course”. This promises to “bring you to a basic level of competence in private client work in four days”. Will drafting is covered in day one, along with basic tax.
Can the WIQS really weed out these four-day wonders or, indeed, the non-private client lawyer who quickly drafts a Will for his client in a lunch-break? Arguably, these practitioners pose more risk to clients than the non-solicitor Will writers that the Law Society is so nervous about. At least these people are specialists in their field.
WIQS accredited firms will have to adhere to the “Law Society Wills and Inheritance Protocol”. This is an 83-page document, which very commendably requires solicitors to, among other things, respond to clients in a timely manner and take detailed attendance notes. In fact, WIQS accredited firms will need to have a written policy document on taking attendance notes - along with about 10 other written policy documents.
The Protocol is alarmingly silent on whether the solicitor in question actually knows what they are talking about and whether they are able to offer quality advice. One way of ensuring this would be to require that solicitors take an exam before they can earn their WIQS badge. However, the Law Society seems to have eschewed this option in favour of what many fear may be a checklist exercise.
It is not as well-known as it should be that there is already an excellent quality mark for private client lawyers via the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). A solicitor with a STEP Diploma has passed four gruelling three-hour closed-book exams. What such a solicitor doesn’t know about wills, estates and tax isn’t worth knowing.
If you have a STEP Diploma, why would you need WIQS accreditation too? Perhaps the only thing that WIQS can offer which STEP doesn’t is the advertising power of the Law Society. Perhaps STEP feels it is somehow unseemly to plaster the nation’s bus stops with giant posters of accident victims. Nevertheless, STEP does need to step up and start telling the public about the benefits of seeking out its members for expert Will writing and probate advice.