Austin's angle: the ledger
24 Sep 12
The necessary chore of looking after the clients' account
When I was a young’un, I wanted to be a lawyer. I still enjoy it – looking after the problems, foibles, aspirations – and occasionally triumphs – of real human beings. What I didn’t knowingly or willingly sign up for was the banking. The two most troubling words I know in the English language are CLIENTS’ ACCOUNT.
On any given day, a wee firm like ours has a few million sloshing around in there. Purchase deposits, loan funds, executry assets, free proceeds in dispute, sums retained. It all mounts up and it all belongs to someone other than me.
It is, I suppose, testament to the innate trust that people have in us as solicitors that we are given, usually without any actual documentation beyond an initial letter of engagement, sums that are more than any client can afford to lose. We will not run away to Venezuela with it, put it on the 2.30 at Musselburgh or spend it on women and drink (or worse, fritter it away…. sorry, old joke).
I hate this aspect of the job. Not only do I have to be careful not to lose or miscount these funds, but the Law Society of Scotland will (rightly) check up on me from time to time. I am glad they do this as we know we aren’t pochling the money, but we want to know they will find out if anyone else is. We are contributors to the Guarantee Fund, so the less that goes AWOL the better for all honest principals in private practice.
So in terms of this blog, Cash is King. It is the responsibility of every qualified solicitor dealing in client funds to (a) know the rules, (b) apply them, and (c) shop anyone they see who isn’t. I as cashroom partner/manager, need to put friendship and trust to one side and maintain a rigorous regime of examination and supervision of the ledger. It doesn’t matter that the colleagues and I are busy and have lots of cases and transactions to deal with. The duty of keeping the ledger cleansed is an ever-present one. As I say to my fee-earners, the ledger is not something that happens to someone else.
Some basics: it is not the cashier’s job to check and update the ledger – he or she does not know the details of the transaction or case in hand, and can only depend on the lawyers. It is not enough to tell a secretary or admin assistant that we need the next 20 client balances dealt with – again it is only the solicitor or fee-earner dealing with the matter who knows enough to decide if a balance needs taken to fees, written off, or if outlays need to be paid off or fees to account chased up; and so on.
Indeed it is not even just a question of professionalism or effort. The rules require that balances be dealt with before they are two months old, and by late 2013 all old balances MUST be squared off or dealt with in full.
Staff should be working on a monthly or four-weekly cycle, and recording their activity. It may be completely sensible and lawful for a balance to remain in place beyond the basic terms, but that has to be recorded in the case management history or the file – without fail.
The rules and guidance, are, as ever, contained in the Law Society of Scotland website www.lawscot.org.uk. There are sections on invested funds, old/small balances that seem to breed like moths in the financial wardrobe, reporting to clients, rendering of fees, and lots more. You/we need to learn and apply. It's not what we went into the law to do, but it is a core duty for all solicitors who intromit. Fundamentally, looking after someone else’s money honestly and efficiently is a simple procedure – and philosophy.
But you can at least bank on it.