I was asked a very interesting question this week. A lady contacted me as she was unhappy with the way that her personal injury claim was being handled by her solicitor.
She had a number of concerns, but one of her main worries was the quality of the advice she was receiving. “I’m not even sure that he’s a real solicitor. How do I tell?” she asked.
It is a common misconception that if you are represented by a firm of solicitors then the person dealing with your claim must be a solicitor. Increasingly, claims are being conducted by people with vastly varying qualifications and experience. A large proportion of these people are not qualified lawyers and work from an on-screen script. This is particularly common in the large “litigation factory” firms.
The first letter sent to a client by a solicitor is usually lengthy as it must contain certain basic information. One thing that must be specified in that letter is the name and title of the person with day-to-day conduct of the claim. Firms use a variety of self-created job titles to refer to staff with no legal qualification, common examples being “Litigation Executive”, “Claims Executive” or “Trainee Legal Executive”. It is important to remember that these people are not qualified lawyers.
A solicitor will either simply be described as a “Solicitor”, or as a “Partner”, “Associate Solicitor” or “Assistant Solicitor”. These latter three will be qualified solicitors, the words “Partner”, “Associate” and “Assistant” simply referring to the solicitor’s place within the internal hierarchy of that firm. The important thing is that they use the word “Solicitor”, as it is actually a criminal offence to hold yourself out as a solicitor unless you are one!
There are also Legal Executives. Only a Fellow of the Institute of Legal Executives may describe themselves as a “Legal Executive”. They are qualified lawyers, but may only work in-house in a company or for a firm of solicitors, ie they may not set up their own law firm unless they first go on to qualify as a solicitor.
It is also worth remembering that just because somebody is a solicitor, it does not necessarily mean that they have the required experience to deal with your matter. For example, as a solicitor, there is nothing stopping me from acting for you in a conveyancing matter. After all, I have a piece of paper that confirms that I passed some conveyancing exams 20 years ago. However, I have not acted in a single conveyancing transaction since I qualified. So how can you tell if somebody has the experience that you need? This is not always easy, but a good starting point in the case of a personal injury claim, is whether the person is a member of the Law Society’s Personal Injury Accreditation Scheme. This was set up by the profession’s governing body, the Law Society, 16 years ago.
Membership of the scheme involves a lengthy application and assessment process and has to be renewed every five years. The application is also expensive, so an individual is unlikely to apply unless they are confident that they have the necessary experience.
There is an easy on-line way to check whether somebody is a solicitor and/or a member of Personal Injury Accreditation Scheme, by going to the “Find a Solicitor” section of the Law Society’s website.