Creating and Then Protecting Professionalism

Most clients choose a lawyer because they think that they are the best person to look after their problem. However, very few clients have all the information that they would need to make that decision.

The decision isn’t made after a careful look at the results achieved in litigation and significant transactions, or a considered look at all the depth, creativity and insight shown by the lawyer in the advice given to other clients. Most of what we do is confidential and difficult to compare against the results and advice of other lawyers.

Early in my legal career, I received advice from a senior practitioner along these lines: “The perception of expertise is just as, if not more, important than actually being an expert.”

The rationale was that you will not have the work to demonstrate your expertise on if you don’t get the work in the first place. There are many technically excellent professionals with modest businesses because they lack confidence in marketing, and they are not the sort of person you would want to be stuck in the same room with for more than five minutes.

The perception of competence and expertise is gleaned from: 

• selective testimonials promoted by the service provider; 

• colourful and well-presented advertising; 

• prompt and astute people handling initial client enquiries; 

• suggestive descriptions of expertise and capabilities.

No one is going to believe that you provide the best service unless someone tells them you do. I am yet to see any business that charges a premium1 be successful by touting themselves for being average.

But securing a client and then keeping their confidence through providing a perception of expertise is not the be-all and end-all. A professional has a duty to their profession and the client to be the best they can be, even when no-one is looking.

There are many similarities between a lawyer and a strata manager. Both professions fundamentally provide a service that involves taking on other people’s problems, ensuring legislation is followed, building and maintaining relationships, charging a professional fee and complying with codes of professional conduct and ethics.

There are also many points of departure. A lawyer requires a practising certificate that can only be acquired after: 

• acquiring a law degree; 

• obtaining a graduate diploma with a period of work experience; and 

• having the Supreme Court determine you are a fit and proper person.

For strata managers, there is a licensing regime in New South Wales, Victoria, North Territory and ACT. There is no licensing regime in Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania or Western Australia.

Holding a licence or a practising certificate is no guarantee of perfection to the professional service being provided. But it is an important consumer protection provision as it: 

• sets minimum professional standards that need to be met for the licence or certificate to be obtained;

• requires ongoing professional education to maintain those standards; and 

• is accompanied by a process for independently handling complaints about the holder’s professional conduct.

A licence also gives a perception of competence and professionalism to a consumer. Businesses in those states and territories without a licensing regime must create the perception of competence and professionalism in some other way, which turns us back to the advice I was given early in my career.

There is a strong focus on the introduction of licensing for strata managers in Queensland. SCA (Qld) is advocating for it, and many members of the public have separately petitioned the Queensland Parliament for it. As at 18 December 2020, the public petition has 818 signatures. It begins with this: There is a raw tone to the petition, but the sentiment is correct. There is no barrier to entry in Queensland’s strata management market.

“Queensland residents draws (sic) to the attention of the House that Queensland body corporate managers (BCM) conduct a private business in the strata industry however, they are not regulated by Government authorities. For example, an individual working as a butcher one day may decide overnight to hang up a shingle and work as a Queensland body corporate manager the next day.”

Many strata managers reading this should reflect on their own journey. The stories that are shared with me from many successful strata managers invariably begin with: “I had no idea what strata was until I worked in that first job”.

Some of the most talented professionals I know are strata managers. Many are university-educated, well-organised, confident and know the legislation better than most lawyers.

Strata management is a profession because many of those individuals who built this industry over the last three decades considered themselves to be providers of a professional service and demanded the same attitude of any who worked with them.

They built this industry from the ground up, and effort needs to be given to protect it. Encouraging governments to create a licensing regime across the remaining states and territories is an important step in affording this protection. It’s well overdue.

1 There are many businesses that become successful by competing for that segment of the market that has price as the main driver of their purchasing decision – “No Frills”, “Black and Gold”, etc. But in the context of professional services, entry for a low price is usually a temporary sacrifice the business makes in order to gain access to a more lucrative revenue stream. For example, some strata managers quote a low management fee in order to give themselves time to establish a confidence in the client (which then leads to a higher price for the next term) or an opportunity to charge additional services.

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