What's in

a name?

Solicitor JASON TOZER writes that it’s time for stricter guidelines on how solicitors describe themselves.

 

 “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is a line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and is often used to remind us how unimportant names can be. Call a rose something else and it still looks, smells and acts like a rose.

However, the same does not work in the reverse: calling something else a rose does not make it so. This principle is no more important than in the legal profession.

To call yourself a solicitor in NSW, you need to clear a number of hurdles: you must clear a tertiary qualification, a graduate diploma and admission by the Supreme Court.

To call yourself a specialist in an area of law or a principal of a law practice, there are further hurdles you must clear such as the Law Society’s Specialist Accreditation Program or completion of a Practice Management Course.

However, the same type of regulation on a solicitor calling themselves a “Senior Lawyer”, “Senior Solicitor”, “Senior Associate” or simply an “Associate” does not exist.

In addition to this, there is nothing preventing a solicitor from advertising themselves as having “considerable”, “extensive” or “significant” experience despite the fact that they may have been admitted for just a short time.

The public needs clear information

Because of this, members of the public do not have a consistent guide to help them assess who they may employ for legal services and some in the profession are taking advantage of the lack of regulation to bolster their appeal to anyone shopping for a lawyer.

Once this issue was brought to my attention, I googled “criminal lawyers” and looked at some websites. One firm I looked at stated it had a number of “Senior Criminal Lawyers”.

I looked at the profile of one the Senior Criminal Lawyers in the firm, the profile of which claimed they had “practised exclusively in criminal and traffic law for several years”. Then I looked up the solicitor on the Law Society website and discovered they had been admitted just two years ago. Hardly several years of experience.

Profiles of other Senior Criminal Lawyers at the firm claimed they had “a wealth of experience” or “considerable specialist criminal experience” despite the solicitors being admitted in 2015 and them not being Accredited Specialists.

I looked at a different firm’s website and found a Senior Associate who had been admitted for fewer than four years and was still on a supervised practising certificate. Another firm’s website had a “Senior Lawyer” who had been admitted less than four years ago, and an “Associate” admitted for less than five years.

What about family lawyers?

I wondered if this type of practice was confined to criminal law firms and googled “family lawyers”.

A profile of one family lawyer claimed to have “significant experience” in family law but had only been admitted for less than four years and still had a supervised practising certificate. Another website had a “Senior Solicitor” who was admitted less than five years ago.

It must be said that these websites had “Senior Lawyers, Senior Solicitors, Senior Associates” and “Associates” who had had many years of experience. This further demonstrates the difficulty members of the public would have in differentiating between two or more seemingly equal solicitors.

While one may argue there are consumer law protections against solicitors advertising their experience in that way, surely it should also be incumbent upon the profession to ensure that solicitors are not misleading the public with titles and descriptions that are at best ambiguous and at worst misleading.

Only clear regulation would ensure that the public was properly informed as to what legal representation they are employing.

Reform needed

Additions need to be made to the Legal Profession Uniform Law to regulate what titles solicitors may give themselves and how they may describe their level of experience.

Such regulations should require the following:

  • a solicitor must have seven years’ post-admission experience in their relevant area of law or Specialist Accreditation in that area of law to call themselves a “Senior Lawyer”, “Senior Solicitor”, “Senior Associate”, and
  • a solicitor must have at least five years’ post-admission experience in their relevant area of law to be titled an “Associate” of a firm, and
  • solicitors should be prohibited from describing their experience in an ambiguous manner, including the use of the terms “significant” or “considerable” or phrases such as “a wealth of” or “several years of”, and
  • any form of advertising solicitors should state when a solicitor was admitted to practice and when they began to practise in the area, or areas, of law they are offering services in, and
  • profiles of solicitors on websites or in any other media should be deemed advertising.

About the author

Jason Tozer was admitted to practise as a solicitor in 2009, has been a Police Prosecutor with the NSW Police Force since 2012 and is an Accredited Specialist in Criminal Law.