Mike Frith seems remarkably composed for someone who has spent three years at a desk at the Office for Supervision of Solicitors (OSS) in Leamington Spa listening to worried solicitors.Perhaps it is because there are few harder training grounds in the professional world than being a high-street solicitor for nearly three decades.
Mr Frith spent 28 years in private practice in Coventry and the surrounding area as a high street practitioner dealing with mainly contentious work.In 1993, he left practice to work for the service complaints department of what was then the Solicitors Complaints Bureau in Leamington.
He spent the next five years as a complaints handler, before moving to Lawyerline, which was established in 1997.
He took the job on in 1998, originally for a two-year contract, but he has continued in the post.Lawyerline is a free, confidential service for solicitors who are concerned about how to deal with service complaints from clients.Mr Frith also carries out an extensive series of lectures to law firms and legal groups sharing his experience of complaints-handling.
He has now put this experience down on paper and the first text, dedicated to that great concern of lawyers -- how to avoid and deal with complaints -- will soon be available to practitioners.Lawyerline receives around 600 genuine solicitor calls each year.
Mr Frith answers almost 2,000 calls in total, but many of them are from members of the public who have obtained the number accidentally, or from solicitors who really need to speak to the Law Society's ethics department, not Lawyerline.Mr Frith says almost all cases of service complaints boil down to 'poor communications'.
The most common problem, he says, is the perception of delay on the client's part, conveyed by a failure on the lawyer's behalf to keep clients abreast of developments.
Half of all cases in which the client complains of delay are really caused by a lack of communication, he says.The next big area of complaint, unsuprisingly, is costs.
Mr Frith says this is a field where real progress has been made: 'Two or three years ago, most costs complaints related to solicitors' failure to provide comprehensive costs information up front.
This is no longer the case, and the problem has shifted to ongoing costs information.'He explains that these divide into three categories: bad billing, which fails to make clear to the client where exactly the costs have been incurred; a failure to explain to the client in, say, ongoing litigation, the costs implications of specific events; and the use of legal jargon to explain matters such as the potentially large impact the statutory charge can have on costs and potential winnings in state-funded actions.But whether the issue is costs or delay, the trigger for complaints is almost invariably failure to return telephone calls, says Mr Frith.He explains: 'There are many times when solicitors get rung up by trouble-making clients who just become a nuisance.
But there are genuine complaints.
If these go unanswered too, anger builds up in the client, who starts to think, "This guy's trying to avoid me".'These may be the actual catalyst and motivation behind the complaint, but the biggest challenge, as far as Mr Frith is concerned, is altering the approach to handling them -- because things just have not changed here.'It's the mental approach to complaints that just hasn't changed,' he says, adding: 'Solicitors treat complaints against them as if they are claims, because they are brought up to think in terms of negligence.' Many solicitors do not, it appears, understand the concept of a service complaint.
They just 'put up a wall', he says.Mr Frith endorses current moves to introduce more stringent penalties for lawyers who fail to administer complaints according to the procedures set out by rule 15 of the Solicitors Practice Rules.
'The only way to change the mental attitude is to use more of the stick,' he maintains.However, Mr Frith does not blame solicitors for their mental attitude.
He quotes a speech by Neil Jopson, the former honorary secretary of the Milton Keynes & District Law Society.
In it, Mr Jopson said: 'There can be no other profession whose members are individually in opposition to each other on a daily basis.
Even soldiers fight together.
Whether a client's problems are contentious or non-contentious, a solicitor faces obstruction to what he or she is trying to achieve for a client from a "colleague", who is looking after his own client's interests.'Mr Frith says he deals frequently with solicitors who say their reaction to a complaint was purely professional.
'Of course, they are right, but for a solicitor, the language and style that they are used to -- and which is perfectly professional -- is often totally different from the way members of the public expect to be handled.'From his own point of view, he wants to see Lawyerline used not only more frequently by lawyers, but also earlier.Research shows that around 90% of solicitors replying to questionnaires after using Lawyerline said the service had helped to resolve the issue.He makes the point that, if complaints are going to end up in the OSS, it is worth solicitors making the first call to Lawyerline.But Mr Frith explains that if lawyers are reserved about telephoning Lawyerline, this reflects a more general tendency in the profession to deal with complaints by letter, and thus avoid talking about them.He adds: 'This is totally the wrong way to deal with complaints.
It's just so easy to get wrong.
I can almost guarantee that a solicitor trying to deal with a complaint by letter will get it wrong.
The problem is that you lose the tone of voice and the body language.
They are crucial to resolving the issue.'Clients who believe they have been victims of poor service will interpret letters any way they want, he says.'They also think of lawyers as the experts when it comes to putting things in writing, and therefore perceive themselves as being at an automatic disadvantage.'Solicitors should welcome complaints, he says, as 'the most efficient way of gauging where your firm is failing, and rectifying the issue'.One reason why lawyers might not want to call Mr Frith is the location of his office, in the OSS.
It is not a building with which most solicitors would aspire to be associated.But Mr Frith says that need not deter them.
He explains: 'This is a completely confidential service.
If there are, on occasions, moments when I hear information that seems to me to be of wider importance, which would interest the OSS, I might say so to the caller.
But I would then give a clear option to them on whether I may hand the information over.
If the caller says no, I don't.'Besides, he explains that many lawyers call without identifying themselves, and this is not a problem either.
Mr Frith has an affable phone manner -- and he is in a job that needs one.So solicitors who have been sweating over some niggling complaint that just will not go away should give him a call.
It's good to talk, and it could save yo u your practising certificate.