Compliance should be neither an afterthought nor a burden – it should be a natural consequence of running your law firm and managing your accounts well. The SRA will tell you that anti-money laundering and mishandling client money are the two most common mistakes law firms make. So how do you avoid the SRA’s intervention? writes Julian Bryan, Managing Director, Quill
HERE ARE 10 COMPLIANCE MISTAKES LAW FIRMS MOST OFTEN FALL FOUL OF:
- NOT PAYING ATTENTION TO THE LATEST SRA ACCOUNTS RULES:
The SRA regularly updates its rules, and it’s up to you to be aware of these changes and understand how it impacts your accounts function. The best thing to do is follow the SRA news and adopt a compliance-centric approach to your business in order to avoid serious SRA Accounts Rules breaches.
- INCORRECTLY OPERATING A CLIENT ACCOUNT:
Ensure your client account includes the required level of information and that you don’t provide banking facilities to clients or third parties. It’s essential that your staff are aware of the relevant money laundering regulations and what constitutes provision of banking facilities.
On the same point, don’t suffer lack of understanding about how to operate without a separate client account, should you choose this route. SRA’s Rule 2.2 is all-or-nothing. It gives you the choice of exemption from having a client account (across the whole practice, not on a client-by-client basis). Whilst this may sound like an easier option (and cheaper as you don’t need accountants’ reports), it could create more work by asking clients to pay third parties directly and subsequently making sure these payments have been made.
Alternatively, another option permitted by the SRA is Third Party Managed Accounts which can provide client onboarding checks, card processing and outsourced client account services within one solution. You must decide what makes the most sense for your business.
- NOT MAINTAINING A CLEAR BREACH REGISTER:
You and your employees must be suitably trained to spot suspected breaches, and you must document how discovered breaches will be rectified and keep a register of this information.
- NOT HAVING A PAYMENT OF INTEREST POLICY:
Your policy of interest should clearly state how money held in your client account will be handled, including when it becomes due and the rates you’ll use.
- NOT THOROUGHLY CHECKING YOUR RESIDUAL AND SUSPENSE BALANCES:
Analyse which of these monies you currently hold, determine if you should be holding them, return to the proper recipients where possible, and log what you’ve done if these people can’t be located.
- NOT DEFINING ‘PROMPTLY’:
This word is dotted throughout the revised SRA Accounts Rules. What ‘promptly’ means to one person is different to another. Choose suitable timeframes for your firm and clarify in your office policies.
- NOT SETTING REALISTIC SERVICE LEVEL AGREEMENTS (SLAS):
There’s no point in setting impossible-to-meet timescales. For example, if you’re a rural practice with no easy access to a local bank or building society, don’t set tight timings regarding paying in cheques. Instead, be honest and upfront about what’s feasible for your unique circumstances and incorporate that into your contracts and policies.
- NOT SUPPORTING YOUR COFA:
Your accounting system should allow you to produce a tri-balance comparison of your client bank, cashbook and client ledger balances. By checking and signing a report of this nature, your COFA can meet his / her SRA obligations and you’ll have the visibility you need to make sure compliance measures are being met.
- PURCHASING THE WRONG LEGAL ACCOUNTS SOFTWARE:
Ask for recommendations from trusted peers of what works best for them. Be sure to probe any potential software provider about how they handle system enhancements to address ever-changing rules. Your supplier should be rolling out new and enhanced functionalities which allow you to streamline compliance procedures and ensure you’re constantly protected.
- NOT COLLABORATING AND COMMUNICATING EFFECTIVELY:
Compliance is not a one-person task. It’s the duty of everyone in your organisation from your cashiers and compliance officers to senior leaders and solicitors. Seek input from all stakeholders when reviewing compliance-related policy documents and roll out updated documentation with appropriate training company-wide. Keep your accountant informed always so audits can be done quickly and efficiently.
Hopefully our tips will help you fulfil your regulatory compliance responsibilities with ease. This excerpt is taken from our ’15-Step Guide to Starting Your Own Law Firm’.
To download our guide in its entirety, and learn how to keep client money safe and avoid money laundering scams, please visit www.quill.co.uk/ legalpracticemanagementforstartups
Julian Bryan is the Managing Director of Quill, which helps law firms streamline, and run their practice better and compliantly by providing simple and easy-to-use legal accounting and case management software, as well as outsourced legal cashiering services. Julian is an advocate for quality software standards and served as the Chair of the Legal Software Suppliers Association from 2016 to 2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.