Comment: “You know the client” – SRA’s policy head talks innovation and cloud

Legal IT Insider’s editor Caroline Hill speaks to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s policy head Crispin Passmore about the regulator’s change agenda

It’s quite unfashionable to like the regulator, but there’s something about the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s plain speaking executive director for policy that makes everything seem unfashionably straight forward.

Crispin Passmore and I meet with no specific agenda but our meeting coincides with the release of the SRA’s short IT and Innovation report. For my part, I want to hear more from Passmore about the SRA’s changing attitude to innovation but also to discuss the lack of concrete guidance available to law firms when it comes to executing their cloud strategy.

Passmore is known to be both outspoken and quotable. In a speech before he joined the SRA in October 2013, while he was strategy director for the Legal Services Board (LSB), he said: “As Blockbuster, Jessops and HMV all discovered, you can argue your business is different because you offer expertise and personal service, but no part of this market is immune to change.”

We meet at the SRA’s somewhat unofficial looking shared premises near London Bridge. It’s a modern kind of meeting and we look (fairly briefly) at the IT and Innovation Report on my iPhone 5 – Passmore because he’s gone paperless, and I because I couldn’t get my printer to work before leaving the office.

I find the report slightly challenging, and not just because it’s in miniature. It’s a mixed bag of advice that suggests firms should turn to virtual assistants and artificial intelligence within due diligence and for data mining in litigation. Equally, it advises law firms to keep their passwords secure and keep security software updated.

Speaking to all needs and budgets is a perennial challenge faced by the legal regulatory and representative bodies, but I want to know, who is the report targeted at?

“Everybody,” Passmore says. “Big law firms are more likely to have an IT department and the capital to invest but innovation doesn’t have to be large scale and take lots of money or change the world. It’s about doing things differently and about the attitude behind it. Perhaps the biggest challenge in a changing world is to focus on client, client, client.”

The report is the latest effort by the SRA, led by CEO Paul Philip, to engage on innovation and the report is easier to make sense of if you think of it as part of a tasting menu than the whole meal.

In October last year, the SRA launched its SRA Innovate offering (formally launched at a conference on 22 March) and an extensive report on innovation and growth. Short ‘thought leadership’ reports are going to become more the norm.

“We are trying to get law firms to see that you can’t divorce risk and opportunity. When we talk about managing risk we don’t want you to put off using technology.

“Lawyers tend to be risk averse. We’re trying to say ‘use innovation to deliver better services,’” Passmore says.

In this vein, the SRA is considering creating an ‘innovation space’ where firms and individuals can bring all their new business ideas and the SRA will find a way to regulate them, in a sort of delicious, if a little crunchy melting pot of technology and regulation.

Without wishing to stereotype mainstream law firms or dismiss their (often lack of) ideas about innovation, this seems to me more likely to appeal to new market entrants.

“Lots of firms are thinking about it,” says Passmore. “Lots are investing, big and small. Sometimes the way firms are set up can be a disadvantage. They are set up to do things in a certain way whereas if you’re starting from scratch you can offer an entirely different solution.”

The innovation space coincides with the SRA this summer opening a consultation on the amendment of its highly prescriptive handbook, with the aim of cutting it to 50 pages and seeing it become more outcome focussed.

Passmore, who joined the SRA in 2013 from the LSB, said: “We will write the rules around what you need to achieve rather than the steps you need to take to achieve it. It will be more flexible so that when firms do something different they shouldn’t have to come and ask permission.”

I’m not convinced being less prescriptive will necessarily mean more helpful. One of the issues for firms in executing their various cloud strategies is that they feel the SRA is not prescriptive enough. Its Silver Linings cloud paper is now three years’ old and gives little guidance on key, thorny issues such as the degree of client consent that should be sought.

Passmore reminds me that lawyers must also turn to guidance from the Information Commissioner, responsible for data protection enforcement. He adds: “Law firms have an obligation of confidentiality and to always act in the best interest of the client, that’s very clear. Let’s not over complicate things. If a firm decides to outsource their data, do they need consent from the client, probably not. But you know the client, you know what they want and you know what your relationship with them is. You end up with bad regulation if it’s made on one case. If the client wouldn’t want their data in the cloud, don’t do it, you mustn’t expose clients to a risk they wouldn’t want to take. But if the client doesn’t like it, they can go somewhere else. That’s how competition works.”

This article first appeared in the March Legal IT Insider