Complaining clients are intimidated by lawyers’ language and antagonised by a half-hearted approach to apologising, research for the complaints watchdog has found.

The study, commissioned by the Legal Ombudsman, surveyed clients who had recently used a lawyer and asked their opinion on how complaints were handled.

The ombudsman says findings included:

  • Some law firms turn to long or confusing words, as well as legal jargon, when dealing with consumers.
  • If the complaint does progress, some suggest that lawyers’ communications imply the issue is not being taken seriously, with responses such as ‘we’ve had a word’.
  • When it comes to rectifying a problem, some legal services providers stop short of a proper apology by offering terms such as ‘we understand your frustration’ or saying ‘I’m sorry you feel this way’ rather than simply ‘I’m sorry’.

Language issues are not the sole preserve of lawyers: the ombudsman also admits it must cut out meaningless terms such as remedy, premature and out of time, as well as phrases like ‘provisional’ decision or ‘informal resolution’ which mean little to ordinary consumers.

Research, carried out by consultancy IFF, featured a consultation with legal ombudsman staff, followed by interviews with individuals and groups who had brought a complaint through the service and recently reached an outcome. Further studies also asked the views of members of the public who had used a legal services in the last year but who had not complained.

Consumers who had complained in the past felt lawyers were too readily switching into self-justification mode and trying to shift blame back onto them. Apologies sometimes appeared ‘buried’ within several other pages of material, and the words were caveated so as not to fully acknowledge any distress caused, the ombudsman said. 

Those happy with their response said legal service providers had included an apology early in a letter and attempted to show they had investigated the issue and acknowledged some failing on their part.

It was also found to be reassuring if the law firm thanked them for bringing a problem to its attention, as well as details of how the investigation had been conducted.

Simon Tunnicliffe, director of operations at the legal ombudsman's office, said: ‘This new research emphasises that how professionals communicate and the language they use can have a huge impact on how a complaint is resolved and when.' He said the findings would challenge preconceptions about what ‘good communication’ looks like. 'The research has also provided useful insights for us to improve our own communications.’