Interview with Penny Raby, Chairwoman of the Solicitors’ Sole Practitioners Group

The Solicitors’ Sole Practitioners Group (SSPG) is a not-for-profit independent stakeholder group, providing professional and pastoral support, training and regulatory representation on behalf of all Sole Practitioner solicitors in England and Wales.

Formed back in 1992, The SSPG set out to defend and champion the rights and interests of solicitors that practice independently. Over the years, the Group has built up its support and established its voice, developing contacts, and liaising with other legal organisations such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Legal Ombudsman. While initially part of The Law Society, the SSPG now exists with independent status, furthermore, since 2002, the Group have been able to nominate two Law Society Council Members, and this remains a very important linkage with the main Law Society.

Penny Raby has been a Sole Practitioner specialising in family law for 25 years. She runs a practice with her forensic accountant husband Mike Gordon. Together they specialise in divorce cases that involve business and complex finances and Inheritance Act disputes.

Penny believes in empowering her clients and offers an alternative approach to solving family disputes . Her offices in the Georgian market town of Pershore were converted from cottages dating back to the fifteenth century , and the presence of the staff dogs completes the relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. She is actively involved promoting her profession , even taking a pantomime performance to successful European networking meetings . Penny represented her profession at national and local level on television and radio . In 2014, she won Worcestershire Family Lawyer of the Year award and in 2015, she was nominated for the National Family Law Magazine Family Law Firm of the Year. Last year Penny was elected chair of the Solicitors’ Sole Practitioners Group.

We chatted with Penny about the issues that sole practitioners face in the year of COVID 19.

Tell as a little bit about the Sole Practitioners Group

Sole practitioner firms represent over one-third of all solicitor firms in the UK and the Sole Practitioner Group includes all 4000+ sole practitioner solicitors .The SPG is a strong advocate for high standards of excellence within our profession which includes training, insurance and cyber security. We think it is important not to compromise reassurance and protection of the public in order to give cheaper services. One example is that, although every sole practitioner has automatic free membership to the group, freelancers can join only if they have the appropriate insurance as we rate insurance as absolutely essential to give reassurance and protection to the client.

Besides acting as a mouthpiece for sole practitioners, we also act as a networking centre, advisor and referrer. We support our members through local groups, we organise training and conferences and we communicate through our website and the ‘Solo Journal’ which is our periodic magazine.

What motivated you to take the position of chairwoman?

I work with a wonderful team that is our executive committee, the vice chair, Joanna Connolly, the secretary, Clive Sutton, and treasurer Kem Masinbo-Amobi. They are all very important people and fulfil various functions, so I’m not doing this alone. I wanted to be chair to lead the group to achieve a higher profile and better service to members, and the example of several predecessors inspired me , in particular Lubna Shuja who is one of our council members and has just been voted in a Deputy Vice President of the national Law Society.

The Group has had an annual conference for many years, and they are always fabulous events that serve many purposes. Along with continued professional development and serious networking, they are important social occasions which cannot be underrated for practitioners that work alone. I had hoped to be playing a large part in producing a wonderful conference for June this year, which was supposed to be in Malaga. It was going to be extraordinary, but of course didn’t happen due to COVID.

What kind of adaptations have the SSPG had to make during lockdown to address the needs and provide support to sole practitioners?

Being a Sole Practitioner can be a lonely business and that’s why the social aspect of our local groups and annual conference is so important. It’s interesting that since Covid has forced us to communicate exclusively online, I think it’s become easier and more comfortable to meet and network on platforms like Zoom. For example , a regional group presentation might have had 15-20 people attending , but now our monthly live Webinars are reaching up to 100 people nationwide, and the recording is available on catch up on the website so that all 4000+ members can benefit in their own time .

We are also keeping up to date with all the various Government schemes, and we are able to inform and advise our members about the accessibility of loans and grants etc. We would like to have a conference next year and all meet up in person so we are pencilling in plans but like everyone else, we know that might also have to be online, but we will explore all possibilities to maximise benefit to the Group .

How has the issue of cyber security effected sole practitioners.

Whilst virtual meetings and working online from home have worked well for many sole practitioners , we have also been talking about Cyber Security as a topic in our conferences for at least the last three years. In February, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) had a conference in London called ‘Keeping the Law firms safe’ , and SSPG members were the biggest group at that meeting. One reason for that is Sole Practitioners are much more vulnerable to criminal, civil and professional cases against them if there is any breach in Cyber Security. If you are working on your own, even if you have a limited company status, you are going to be in the hot seat if there is a breach of data protection.

We have a particular concern about the new requirements from the courts for filing extremely sensitive legal documentation and information (particularly in family law cases) online. Previously, solicitors could send documents to the courts via DX which is a private postal system , or have them delivered securely by hand. The new system online will not accept encrypted documents , so the solicitor and client are at risk of hacking . We fear that some sole practitioner solicitor who cannot hide behind a large firm , will face criminal prosecution and civil liability for data protection offences , and their client will find their intimate personal information on the front page of the tabloids. We have raised this with Sir Andrew McFarlane the President of the Family Division and are in discussion with the NCSC and the Ministry of Justice to find a solution to protect our members and their clients .

Who can join the SSPG and how do you get membership?

Membership is available to any person who works as the only solicitor in their business and is completely free of charge. Sign up for membership on our website. Whether you are thinking of starting-up your own practice, already running your practice or even thinking of selling, merging or closing down your practice, we can help.