Law: Coming to the aid of the franchise: Firms are calling in consultants to help them prepare to meet the Legal Aid Board's specifications. Barbara Lantin reports

With the first legal aid franchises due to be granted in August, the topic is high on the agenda at many solicitors partners' meetings. So far around 1,200 firms have passed through their preliminary audit, the middle stage between self-assessment and the final pre-contract audit.

Few would claim the process has been easy. Preparing to meet the conditions of the 50-page franchising specification has placed huge demands on fee-earners' time and skills. For virtually everybody, changes have been required, from the relatively minor to the quite dramatic. Indeed a number of firms have admitted that they have neither the time nor the expertise to cope with the process, and have called in consultants.

For Myers Lister Price, a three- partner Manchester practice, legal aid franchising has been the catalyst for some radical and perhaps overdue changes in practice management. Having measured its own procedures against the Legal Aid Board's (LAB) self-assessment audit checklist, the firm decided to call in a firm of management consultants, Practical Solutions for Lawyers. The result was some radical rethinking including computerisation (for which the firm obtained a Department of Trade and Industry grant) and the appointment of an office manager to supervise the franchising arrangements.

'Franchishing represents a new way of thinking and it seemed appropriate for us to make a fresh start too,' says Michael Lister, a partner in the firm. 'It was vital to get an outsider who know the requirements of franchising to look at our procedures and set out what we needed to achieve. After all, franchising is not just about doing certain things but being seen to be doing them. We now have a business plan which sets out our philosophy, and where we want to go and gives us a timetable for getting there. We are much clearer about our goals as a result.'

Taking a totally dfferent approach, Hodge Jones & Allen in north London called in a consultant to look at just one area of the franchising specification which seemed to them particularly sensitive - that of staff appraisal. 'It wasn't that we couldn't have handled it ourselves but we would not have done it so well and it would have been very timeconsuming,' says a partner in the firm, Charles Pigott.

'We wanted it to be seen as a fair scheme and not something we had written ourselves and imposed on people. Our consultant involved as many staff as possible in the way the appraisal forms were drawn up. She was also of value in showing us what to put in and leave out and in giving us professional training in how to use appraisal effectively.'

Keren Smedley of KSA, the consultant who worked with Hodge Jones and Allen, believes that good solicitors do not always make good managers. An objective view can also be useful, she says. 'Somebody who is not involved in the practice can look at it from a different perspective and suggest ways of putting procedures into practice which might not occur to those most closely involved. Management consultancy is just another professional skill. Solicitors don't do their own accounts - they call in accountants. The important thing is for the firm to identify the kind of help they want and to find a consultant who can offer it.'

The Law Society's directory of consultants is a useful starting point. As well as listing around 200 firms with a legal connection, it gives advice on choosing a consultant. Daily rates - which can vary from a few hundred pounds to more than pounds 1,000 - are not quoted, but entries do state whether or not the firm offers a free initial consultation. Among those who do, the free time ranges from two hours to two days.

Many solicitors have of course decided to go for a franchise without seeking outside help. No figures are available but Karen Mackay of the Law Society's professional policy team says: 'Our impression is that consultants have been relied upon less than we might have expected.'

For those who decide to go it alone, the Law Society can give advice on interpreting the specification but - like the Legal Aid Board itself - is at pains to point out that it does not offer a consultancy service. However, its practice management standards and manuals on best practice in various areas of law provide valuable guidance.

What seems clear is that the firms that are best placed to handle preparations for franchising alone are those with some of the required procedures already in place and sufficient in-house expertise to tackle the rest. Recent research from the National Consumer Council suggests that many practices fall short at present. For example, only 43 per cent of legally aided clients surveyed by the NCC said that they had been told at the beginning of a case about the likely cost of their contributions.

Tim Vickers, the practice manager at Clinton Davis Cushing and Kelly in east London, says: 'The Legal Aid Board clearly expects firms to be properly managed. If they are not, franchising will trigger problems. But the problems are not created by franchising itself. Many of the requirements are things we should be doing anyway.'

His practice went through the specification 'line by line' at a weekend partners' meeting and set up a four-person franchising working party. 'It is essential to have a central point through which everything to do with franchising is channelled. If there are bits of knowledge scattered around the building you could end up in a heck of a mess.'

Leathes Prior, a 12-partner practice in Norwich, is also preparing alone for franchising but is keeping its options open. 'We feel that it is important to get our systems up and running first. Then you can call in consultants to do the fine-tuning,' says a partner in the firm, Martin Plowman. 'You can devise all kinds of systems but until you run them you cannot know what works and what doesn't'

What nobody disputes is that legal aid franchising has repercussions for solicitors that go far beyond the mere procedures themselves. As Allan Carton of Practical Solutions for Lawyers puts it: 'There is a strong temptation to rush straight into the procedures needed to meet the LAB's franchising requirements. But franchising is just one of the issues that ought to be tackled. Unless others are sorted at the same time, the potential long-term benefits are likely to be diluted or negative.'

Keren Smedley believes the potential benefits are great. 'Following the requirements should improve the whole practice,' she says.

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