Having been a mere boy of 23 upon entering the profession almost 25 years ago, I’ve seen them come, I’ve seen them go. We are now entering the most challenging period of our business lives as the reality of regulation, Alternative Business Structures and media investigation becomes more intense.
I will say from the outset that my personal view is that we need regulation of the “willwriting” sector as soon as possible. I have believed this from Day One and nothing will ever change my mind. It cannot be right that someone who has no experience or knowledge of estate planning is able to finish their job as a window cleaner, taxidermist, civil servant, mechanic et al one day, buy a software disk for willwriting the next day, (and sometimes not even do that) and then market the service and give advice to the general public for a fee. The issue is that any problem with the document or any advice, will not manifest itself until thirty or forty years down the line. This is wrong, full stop.
I have had the privilege of sitting on the advisory panel for the Legal Services Board over the past 12 months and as a result have met some very interesting people from other organisations including the SRA, the OFT and competitors from other firms across the country. Listening to the perspectives of others, it is clear that a change is needed and the Code of Practice that the Institute operates , was recognized as a model for moving forward.
One comment often raised that I disagree with completely is that all solicitors are better qualified to write wills than any other professional based upon the fact that they are a solicitor. This was proven to be inaccurate in the research we undertook and it opens up a gaping hole in the argument that solicitors are better placed than a qualified willwriter. I prefer to use the term Estate Planner than willwriter as we do so much more than just write wills.
If the profession is to secure itself a credible place in the minds of prospective clients and fellow legal professionals alike, we need to speak with one voice and strive to remove the loophole that allows anyone to set up as a willwriter overnight without the need for examination, due diligence, criminal records bureau check, indemnity insurance and so on. The disparaging perception of what we all do for a living was there for all to see on BBC TV One Show in January. The image of Dominic Littlewood setting up a table top in a city centre to flog wills made me cringe and angry at the same time. We need to start putting real barriers in place to ensure that only credible and honest individuals can enter our profession after having gone through rigorous vetting.
Over the past few months I have had the pleasure of working with one of my colleagues from the Institute, Peter Spillman and two colleagues from the Society of Will Writers, Harvey Gelman and Nick Ash. As a steering group we have been given the task of trying to find the common ground between both organisations in order that we can present to the general public and government, a shared platform and vision for the future. We need to ensure that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet.
Whilst there are inevitable differences, there is a real sense of purpose between us that we can at least agree to a highest common denominator approach to the profession, that would safeguard the public from rogue elements and give the profession a streamlined and defined set of membership levels and qualification levels.
My personal view is that if we are to encourage individuals or businesses into the profession, we need to create a structured examination route. It cannot be right that someone newly qualified at the basic level of willwriting can then advise a business owner with several properties, assets overseas, inheritance tax issues and difficult family situations. This needs to be referred to a more experienced and qualified colleague from within the firm or within their membership organisation. We need to create a tiered structure of examinations to reflect the complexity of the client situations we encounter and to encourage colleagues to take each level of examination at the appropriate time. This would mirror other professions.
I also passionately believe that the sector would be better placed if the Institute and the Society were to merge, creating a much louder and credible voice to represent the sector for all sorts of reasons, including economies of scale, delivery of services, clarity for the general public and most importantly, a stand out body that represents our interests in our sector. Think Council of Licenced Conveyancers for example, one organisation for one profession, does what it says on the tin.
I will acknowledge that members of both organisations will either recoil in horror at this thought or welcome it with open arms, but it is a personal view and it at least should be debated openly in both organisations without interference or recrimination. We all have our careers and businesses to consider and it is under threat from some of the biggest challenges we could imagine, so we at least should consider it. The Institute is rightly proud of the recognition of its Code of Practice by the Office of Fair Trading and that the Code has set the standard for the profession, as recognised by the Legal Services Consumer Panel in their investigation into willwriting. We should encourage and welcome dialogue between the two bodies and whilst our Steering Committee meetings are not always harmonious, they do create a vigorous debate among committed practitioners that want the best for the profession. Watch this space!
A significant area to debate moving forward is the creation / or presence of an independent ombudsman for our sector. The Institute has independent arbitration through the Estate Planning Arbitration scheme but there is a huge void in the rest of the sector that needs to be filled to ensure the public have a right of redress and I believe that it is inevitable that this will come into being. One suggestion I have heard several times now is that every practitioner, whether a one man operation or a large firm, should pay a levy each year to fund this. It is something we are discussing on the Steering Committee and rightly or wrongly, we should all be prepared to invest in a credible solution to allay clients’ fears, as it is one of the sticks currently used to beat willwriters with. We should try and address this collectively at the earliest opportunity. I can understand the concern of further costs, but if you are in this business the sum suggested should not prove unworkable, although I expect there will be a negative response to this. It is something that we can choose to do, or else it ll be forced upon us .
In summary, we all face some wonderful challenges ahead and it is how we embrace them that matters. The focus should be on qualifications, differentiating yourself from the herd, competing on service not price and delivery of a professional, personal service that the big firms that are becoming ABS’s can only dream of. I am very proud of most of our profession, we just need to get together to remove the unsavoury element and if we cannot do that collectively, it may have to be done for us from the outside.
Let’s welcome regulation as it will rid us all of unqualified competitors, help create a better environment in which to trade and give clients what they deserve, a professional, ethical and qualified service.