Law: A leap into the unknown: Sharon Wallach talks to one firm about its fears and hopes for the future of legal aid

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JUST before I arrived for our meeting, Sarah Harman of the two-partner Canterbury practice, Harman & Harman, sent off her firm's franchise application to the Legal Aid Board. 'It is very much a leap into the unknown,' she says. 'There has been nothing like this for lawyers before.'

The unknown includes speculation about what the future will bring for the legal aid lawyer - one rumour concerns competitive tendering. 'The Lord Chancellor has said that it will not be introduced, but it is clear that the legal aid bill has got to be cut,' Ms Harman points out.

If asked how they would apportion public funds between a national health service, education and legal aid, most people would choose the first two, she says. 'But if you cut legal aid, a lot of people at the bottom of the heap would lose out.

'The cost of legal aid is worrying, but the way it has been cut - by reducing the levels of eligibility - has had a terrible effect on clients, particularly those on invalidity benefit, for instance.'

Ms Harman had responded to a feature on these pages about a small but growing commercial practice in the south of England. 'It made me realise that there is a world of difference between commercial firms and legal aid firms,' she wrote. 'Many, ours included, are in a state of upheaval, preparing themselves for franchising.'

Complying with the Legal Aid Board's requirements had involved most firms in a tremendous amount of extra work, and it was clear, Ms Harman says, that some firms bitterly resented this.

'However, we agree with the view of the Legal Action Group that franchising represents an enormous and worthwhile challenge that will hopefully increase the quality of service given to legally aided clients. But we also share with them the nagging doubt that once franchising is fully established, it will be used to cut down the number of firms able to carry out legal aid work.'

Many firms had already given up the work because of its lack of profitability. 'It is here that I see the most fundamental differences in attitude between us and our commercial colleagues,' Ms Harman wrote. 'We would never dream of undertaking 'a carefully planned series of lunches' (like the subject of the feature). We have not got the time, the inclination or probably the money. But my partner and I remain fully committed to legal aid work as we find it intrinsically satisfying and we do believe that although we are not paid as well as our commercial colleagues, legal aid work does provide us with a reasonable standard of living, as long as we work efficiently and vigorously.'

Harman & Harman has survived the recession very well, as it had always been set up to do legal aid, Ms Harman says. 'We have to be prepared to provide an affordable service. We have a reasonable standard of living and we pay reasonable salaries.'

Ms Harman established the firm in 1982. 'I cheerfully stuck a plaque on the door and thought I would do anything,' she says. 'It was foolish.' More sensibly - and inevitably - she says, the firm now specialises in family and civil work. As a member of the Law Society's children panel, she concentrates exclusively on childcare work and her partner, Tony Trivelli, specialises in civil work and personal injury.

The firm is busy, with a workload made up of more than 90 per cent legal aid, with many referrals from citizens' advice bureaux and housing groups, both locally and throughout the county.

Putting in place the Legal Aid Board's 'transaction criteria' has not been a problem, Ms Harman says. 'I think the quality of our advice is very good. The upheaval lies in the administration procedures. We have had accounts and time costing computer systems since 1984, but the office management demands are tough.'

Initially, she confesses to having felt full of resentment. 'But in the last month, I have begun to think the practices - file reviews for example - are very good ideas that benefit the quality of advice given to the client.'

Another problem for many solicitors is that they have never been trained as managers. Her own school of management, she admits, is shouting and yelling. 'It's haphazard and ad hoc. It is so much simpler to have the techniques set out.'

Ms Harman is confident that her firm will be granted franchises. 'We are fully committed and our systems are in place,' she says. Preparing for franchising has benefited the firm as a whole, she adds. 'Everyone has made his or her contribution, which is good for morale.'

Legal aid work may not offer the highest salaries, but there has been a change of attitude, Ms Harman says. 'In the Eighties it was impossible to get halfway decent people to work here. Now we have a whole bunch of unsolicited applications.'

She firmly believes that if franchised solicitors take on board all the training requirements they should be rewarded. 'There has been a lot of resentment over the Lord Chancellor saying that the new rates for civil work will not differentiate between senior partners and assistant solicitors. We have to go on courses, take exams, it all costs money. But what's the point if you end up getting the same rate as an unqualified, unsupervised person? It also goes against the principle of franchising, and it seems to me to prove that there is a hidden agenda on tendering.

'The Lord Chancellor has accused the legal profession of being wasteful and of not putting its own house in order. It will be harder for him to say that in the future, because the franchised firms will by definition be better managed.'

There are difficult times ahead, Ms Harman acknowledges, but the franchised firm will then be in a position of strength.

(Photograph omitted)