In the seven and a bit years since the Handbook came into force, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has been in constant update mode. It’s now up to 400+ pages and version 21; little wonder it’s difficult for solicitors to keep up.

In March, the SRA is expected to release the long-awaited final version of its new Handbook. The Handbook has in fact been renamed and will now be known as ‘Standards and Regulations’, but the good news is that the cumbersome title by no means reflects the far pithier content within.

Standards and Regulations (yet another SAR…) will come to around 130 pages, with “unnecessary” rules removed and the end result being “easier to navigate” and “rationally organised”, according to Chris Handford, Director of Regulatory Policy at the SRA.

Key changes include:

  • The 10 Principles have become seven, with some moving into the body of the Code of Conduct
  • One Code of Conduct becomes two, with a new one specifically for individuals, reflecting the increasing in-house population
  • Far shorter and more focused Accounts Rules that “focus on what matters” – such as protecting client money
  • Liberalisation of how legal services are provided, undoubtedly one of the most controversial changes

The SRA’s intention is to make the rules more user-friendly and compliance more straightforward, but the profession has expressed concern: without clear rules, what does ‘good’ look like? And when and how will ‘bad’ be punished? In response, the SRA published its new enforcement strategy earlier this month.

The missing piece of the jigsaw is the implementation date. Last year the word on the street was that the rules would come into force from April; now the SRA says “more likely summer this year”. The SRA Board needs to approve the implementation date and it will be announced in due course.

What should you be doing now to prepare?

It may be tempting to put off preparation until there is a confirmed implementation date, but don’t. Standards and Regulations place significantly greater emphasis on the individual responsibility of a solicitor – it’s not for the compliance team or COLP to carry the can. Start getting ready now by:

  • Looking at the most recent version of the rules, published earlier in February – an obvious starting point!
  • Considering which practice areas are likely to be most affected by changes and where procedures and policies will need updating.
  • Auditing your supervision arrangements – the SRA is expected to scrutinise these more closely in the future.
  • Reflecting on your firm’s compliance culture – does everyone buy in, top to bottom?
  • Reviewing your firm’s ethics know-how and training provision – ethics are a big focus of the new rules.
  • Planning how you will communicate the change in the firm, whether it’s internal newsletters, face-to-face briefings and training, or online provision.

For those with management or compliance responsibilities, Central Law Training’s SRA Handbook: Are You Ready for the Changes? course will introduce you to the new rules, outline how they differ from the current rules and identify the key changes you are likely to need to make to internal management arrangements. We can also offer in-house training for firms looking to bring a larger group up to speed on the new rules. Visit www.clt.co.uk to find out more.

Thanks to my lovely colleagues at ARK Group for letting me attend their fascinating Risk and Compliance for Law Firms conference on 29-30 January, at which the new rules were a topic of lively discussion.

Article originally published 29 January and updated to reflect the SRA's publication of its enforcement strategy and SaR update.