Who is best placed to perform the COLP role in your law firm?

This blog post was also featured as a column in the February issue of Legal Practice Management magazine. Download here (6MB file) to read the issue in full or visit the February issue's homepage for more information.

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Role reversal

If the management at your firm are keen self-regulators and forever putting risk and compliance at the top of the list, then the introduction of OFR and everything that it encompasses shouldn’t have caused too much of a headache. If your systems and controls are tight and you’ve embraced the solicitors’ accounts rules (and you’re a close follower of the code of conduct), the additional work shouldn’t prove  too cumbersome.

If, on the other hand, your firm has taken risk and compliance lightly, then the introduction of OFR would definitely have caused you a degree of discomfort.

The rebel firms that rejected rules and regulations have had twice as much work to do – they haven’t only to catch up with establishing proper accounting practices and file management, they must also engage in fulfilling the COFA/COLP function.

The introduction of COFA/COLP roles isn’t the only thing to rouse excitement – OFR has provoked firms to act – but are those whinging firms simply the ones that weren’t strictly compliant before? It appears not – we are all remonstrating. But is there too much hype surrounding these new roles? Haven’t we always had a COFA/COLP person working under a different label, usually in the form of the finance director and the managing partner? What’s all the excitement about?

The SRA is looking at changes all the time, with the new ‘support for small firms’ discussion and the launching of a new corporate strategy now in the mix. I’m sure the SRA wants to ease its own burden of intervention by simplifying matters.

Smaller firms don’t have resources in abundance, and some don’t have the knowledge or skills to structure the new arrangement (a lot of small firms struggled to cope with the old regulations), nor can they necessarily afford the changes needed. The idea behind OFR was partly to ease the burden of the over-complicated SARs, and to allow firms to take more control. The bigger firms have the advantage – with a committee of compliance officers, they can afford to train and hire staff, devoting all their time to satisfying the requirements. They’re a fountain of knowledge: is it a major or minor breach, and do we have to report it? They have the answers!

Now COFAs and COLPs share the risk and compliance responsibility (although some might call it a burden). Should all firms have a COFA/COLP committee? The big firms do already.

The COLP role is really about lawyers regulating lawyers, in its current form. But why does it have to be? Lawyers don’t like dealing with administration – everybody knows this. Lawyers don’t respond well when asked to complete a form or review a report, so why give only a lawyer the responsibility of COLP duties? The COLP isn’t a measure of a great lawyer and great lawyers wouldn’t want to be a COLP, not really. Yes, the COLP must have a handle on the business, but there are other non-lawyer directors that have the time and would be best placed to perform the task.  

Higher up the food chain, non-lawyer directors truly understand the business platform and have the essential naked exposure to the firm’s activities and goings-on. Protecting the non-compliant lawyer is not the COLP’s only objective. Protecting the firm’s client is the end goal. And non-lawyer legal business leaders are just as well placed as their lawyer colleagues to take up the task.

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