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How to Prepare for a CQS Assessment

18 April 2024
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Forget spiders or snakes….no matter what industry you operate in, the word “assessment” is scary enough to bring anyone out in a cold sweat. It instantly brings to mind a barrage of tasks, red tape, paperwork chasing, and images of some unknown cold-hearted auditor evaluating your every move like your least favourite teacher from school [shudder].

However in reality, if regarded with a positive mindset, an assessment is a great opportunity to evaluate how well you and your team are performing by comparison with others in your industry, and provides an opportunity to identify areas for improvement; improvements which more often than not, could enhance the effectiveness of your organisation, potentially increasing revenue and decreasing stress for the team.

The same is true for CQS assessments, with the additional benefit of opening new doors to increased business and turnover. Whilst it’s safe to say that the initial assessment is stringent, the benefits of CQS accreditation make it worthwhile.

In this article, we’ll look at the various steps involved with preparing for an initial CQS assessment or for a renewal.

Understanding the assessment process

First and foremost, it’s imperative that the application and assessment process is led by senior management. In addition, due to the time and volume of work required, it’s important to ensure you have full buy-in from all of the relevant stakeholders within the firm before commencing as that will help reduce any friction, frustrations or roadblocks throughout the process.

Generally speaking the CQS assessment process, with some tasks taking place concurrently, can be summarised as follows. However, it is important to remember that every law firm is different and therefore a great way to set your preparation off in the right direction towards an assessment is to speak with a member of our team who can guidance and support you in this process:

  • Firstly, appoint a Senior Responsible Officer (SRO). This person must be a solicitor within the firm with a current Practising Certificate. Once decided, send the application to The Law Society. The SRO will need to pass the The Law Society SRO exam for CQS which currently costs £75 excl. VAT
  • Next, determine who will be the firm’s Relevant Members of Staff (RMS). These are most likely to be members of the conveyancing team and possibly some accounting staff. The RMS need to be approved and signed off by the SRO.
  • Adapt or design controls in your office manual. Some of the controls for CQS need to be documented and evidenced in matter files or central registers. The good news for Lexcel certified firms is that as much as two-thirds of the required controls may already be in place (which also means that Lexcel firms do not normally need a completely separate additional set of CQS procedures. If you don’t already hold a Lexcel accreditation you can learn more here.
  • Submit your formal CQS application. This is a complex form and will require considerable work within the firm. In addition, you will need to pay the relevant fees. The application fee is calculated by The Law Society based on the number of SRA-approved managers within the firm as a whole.
  • All RMS need to be Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checked within 6 months of the application being submitted. This includes conveyancing managers, the CQS SRO, the head of conveyancing, and all qualified conveyancers. It might also include some specialist support staff. This needs to be reconducted and resubmitted every three years thereafter.
  • All RMS must complete the mandatory CQS training within 6 months of accreditation. Training must be conducted via The Law Society portal. Training includes the following topics:
    • Financial crime
    • Protocol in practice
    • Conveyancing practice (in the latest update)
    • Risk and compliance (in the latest update)

More information regarding mandatory CQS training can be found on the Law Society website but at PDA Legal we also provide expert CQS training to augment and sustain knowledge and understanding of the issues, and which is tailored to your firm’s individual needs and includes support rather than you having to “go it alone”.

From time to time, The Law Society may require some additional tasks to be performed. This might include:

  • Examination of a CQS-ready office manual, or specific documented controls before approval for accreditation is granted.
  • An in-person inspection and assessment by a Law Society approved assessor. If you’ve experienced a Lexcel inspection before these will be not unfamiliar to you, and will typically be agreed with the firm in advance.

How to prepare for an inspection

If you are notified of the intent for The Law Society to perform an inspection, the following schedule is not unlikely to apply.

Notice of inspection

This will normally be sent via email and post so it’s important that your SRO uses an email address which is checked regularly so that you get the most amount of notice possible.

The inspector will normally offer three suggested dates and times, and these must provide at least 4 weeks notice so that firms have sufficient time to receive the notification, reply with their preferred date/time, and prepare.

Delivery of key documentation

Once you have received the notification, you are required to provide certain key documents which will include your policies in relation to anti-money laundering (AML), anti-bribery and corruption, mortgage fraud, reports to lender, and Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) reports.

The assessment day

The assessor will either perform a desktop review or, if they have issued a notification of intent to attend, an on-site inspection. The day will normally consist of an initial meeting with the SRO and senior management during which it will be discussed what the inspector intends to review, and which documentation they will need to see.

A core focus of the on-site inspection will be reviewing:

  • Policies and procedures - based on the Core Practice Management Standards (CPMS)
  • Central records
  • Review of open and closed files
  • Interviews with selected personnel

At this point it’s worth pausing to reflect on some definitions and terminology as, simple though it sounds, many firms fall foul on this aspect.

- Procedures are required for CQS compliance
- A procedure is a written description of how an activity will occur within the practice.
- A procedure describes the steps that personnel are required to follow in order to complete an activity.
- At an assessment, a procedure can only be said to be complied with if the assessor can observe that the procedure contained in the practice’s documentation is in effective operation.
- All procedures must have a named person who is responsible for the procedure.
- They must also be reviewed at least annually.
- A 'process' is a series of actions that can be observed, but are not necessarily written down.

Assessment Outcomes

Following the inspection, the results will be reviewed and any findings will be categorised as either:

  • Major non-compliance, or
  • Minor non-compliance

Firms have three months to address any items categorised as major non-compliances, and 21 days to address minor non-compliance issues.

How long does the assessment process take

This will vary depending upon multiple factors. For example, if your firm is already Lexcel accredited, you will find the assessment process not unfamiliar and the firm will already have many of the key requirements in place. Thereby, potentially reducing preparation time by several months.

However, even with Lexcel already in place, typically the path to accreditation often takes organisations between 4 and 12 months.

Retaining the expertise of a CQS consultant such as PDA Legal can help you not only complete the process faster, and first time, but will also help you reduce stress and improve your ability to successfully navigate the stringent acceptance requirements.

How often do CQS assessments take place?

For CQS, you need to renew your accreditation each year which technically means several of the above steps are required every year. However, some are simplified which speeds up the process. For example, if the SRO is the same as the previous year, you can simply state this during the renewal process.

Need help preparing for a CQS inspection?

At PDA Legal we are not only experts in the Conveyancing Quality Scheme, our team includes practising certified Lexcel assessors, and our Operations Director personally trained all of the UK Lexcel assessors in 2018 on v6.1 of the Lexcel standard.

As a result, we have unparalleled knowledge and experience in preparing for and performing assessments. And so, if you are in need of assistance or guidance with any stage of your initial application, re-accreditation or forthcoming inspection, we can help.

Contact us today or give us a call on 01372 879 343 to book in a free, insightful, no-obligation initial discussion with our experienced team.

Get in touch for a free no obligation quote today
  • Law Society Lexcel Assessor. Legal Practice Quality Mark.