Complaints allowed before we’ve even signed up the client? This can’t be true, you may cry. Well, I’m afraid it is, but behind every threat is an opportunity waiting to be seized.
The news that even potential clients can now complain about you, following the changes to the Legal Ombudsman scheme rules, as reported on the SRA website, is likely to have been met with a cry of ‘not more pointless regulation!’.
The changes mean it is now possible for someone to complain that you unreasonably refused to act for them or that you unreasonably and persistently offered to them a service which they did not want.
But before you grumble, maybe take a look at the ombudsman’s guidance, which reasonably says that it is accepted that there will be little evidence for the alleged refusal to accept instructions and that there are valid grounds to refuse instructions such as lack of expertise, business reasons and money laundering.
Also, I believe there is a real business benefit to be gained in how firms face up to the change.
At first sight, you may see only the negatives to this rule change – such as more record-keeping to show why instructions are rejected or that marketing is reasonable and proportionate; reviewing client acceptance procedures; making sure everyone knows what the reasonable grounds are for refusing instructions and ensuring everyone is up to date with the firm’s equality and diversity policy.
However, these are all things that a good quality risk-management system should deal with in any event, so many of you will already have the compliance and regulation issues nailed down, but do your procedures really tell you why a client has been rejected?
Behind most (not all!) compliance initiatives lies a good business reason for acting in a particular way and let’s look at the positives behind having procedures for handling potential new clients reasonably and well.
Every new enquiry to your firm is a potential piece of business and given the difficult financial times, increasing revenue must be a good thing. Leaving aside for a moment any issue of compliance and recording how decisions are reached to reject clients, just take a bit of time to think about how well your firm handles potential new clients – and that includes everyone from the receptionists and support staff through to fee-earners and partners.
Here at LawNet, our member firms are just starting on a programme of mystery shopping, delivered independently and impartially by Shopper Anonymous, which will give firms information about how well potential clients are handled, thus allowing business owners to hear for themselves how good (or not so good) the experience is for potential clients.
You may be surprised to know that it’s quite common for potential clients to call law firms, leave a message or even speak to a fee-earner, but then never hear anything further – either because the fee-earner doesn’t take any contact details or the enquirer’s message left on a voicemail, is never followed up.
So what do you now about your process? Do your reception staff turn business away by simply telling an enquirer you don’t do that type of work? It may be the enquirer simply used the wrong terminology and you could have lost a piece of valuable business, or at the very least referred to a ‘preferred competitor’.
Having effective processes in place for handling and monitoring new business enquiries can address many of these issues of poor business development, as well as telling you why you’ve rejected a client.
So don’t look on these new rules as a burden, but as an opportunity to develop your business.
Jeanette Lucy is the director for compliance, quality and learning with law firm network LawNet