Believe it or not, being chief Legal Ombudsman does not lend itself to fan mail. On the contrary, when a letter or email arrives – looking insidiously like private correspondence from a lawyer – my natural inclination is to mull over what I might have said recently in the press that someone could have taken exception to. And obviously that does little to narrow down the range of possibilities.
What I usually find, however, is that the trepidation is unfounded, since even though the letter may have come from a disgruntled solicitor, their argument is usually perfectly reasonable and the issue at hand part of an ongoing discourse. And that stands for the most frequent point of contention in the letters and emails we have seen recently – whether we should refer to ‘customers’ or ‘clients’.
One writer cheerily praised our ‘excellent’ report on divorce-related legal complaints. However, the now retired solicitor felt quite strongly that we were wrong to talk about customers rather than clients throughout it. In our response we acknowledged that this intentional use of the words was open to scrutiny – the Legal Ombudsman is not a world authority on semantics after all. And so we explained that it remains a useful challenge to the profession to consider the difference.
What was really interesting was his suggestion that ‘it is unfortunate to refer to solicitors’ clients as customers, as though they were shopping in a supermarket’. Interesting because, to some extent, in the emerging legal market, that is precisely what people, customers, consumers (whatever you want to call them) are doing. I do not mean to disparage the role of lawyers and the often qualitative nature of the relationships they build with the people buying their services, but with high street chains and online providers now jostling their way into the sector, people are able to shop around more. And shopping around is increasingly necessary.
As I write, some law firms are rallying around a campaign to warn the government that many jobs across the legal services industry could be lost as a result of civil justice reforms. Legal aid is quickly drying up, and lawyers will have to go out and generate business in new, innovative ways. More people will have to pay for services – the large majority on a budget – and they will inevitably be drawn to the best-priced and best-packaged legal services available.
It is not so much an attempt on the Legal Ombudsman’s part to insist that lawyers adopt customer-oriented terminology. It is more that the market is already well on its way to dictating the new vernacular. It follows that to adopt a customer-focused mindset is to remain competitive.
Lawyers can no longer afford to view people as dependents. The Latin antecedent of ‘client’ originally enshrined a relationship of deference. Being a lawyer was one acknowledged way of assembling a following of clients to which you offered patronage. Long before he was a general, Julius Caesar built his political platform on his expertise in the courts. But with accountability to the people buying your services now at an all time high – as choice increases, ratings websites become more popular and competitors’ marketing strategies increasingly sophisticated – to think this way could be bad for business.
This notion of submission extends into complaints handling. Our research last year into first-tier complaints showed that some service users were literally too intimidated by their lawyer to complain. But stamping this fear factor out will become imperative. If it is not, firms may find their reputations being tarnished on ratings websites where people can vent without fear of reprisals. This seems to be about effective customer relationship management (CRM), something that the commercial sector has been grappling with for some years now. Essentially, high street brands have the advantage of being CRM veterans.
For legal professionals interested in best practice guidance on complaints handling, we are now rolling out free courses. There are no pre-requisites for these but the courses, which are facilitated by ombudsmen, might be particularly suitable for newly qualified professionals, compliance officers, complaints managers and anyone involved in reviewing internal complaints procedures.
The first course was well received and our next course in April is already fully booked. Such is the interest we have had, we are now looking at taking the courses to venues around the country. I would strongly recommend anyone who feels that the training could be relevant to them or a colleague to put their name on the waiting list (contact our stakeholder and public affairs officer, Alex Moore, for more information).
Despite initiatives like this, our most recent stakeholder survey suggests that people feel we are not doing enough data sharing and feeding back to the profession. However, my gut feeling is that this is more to do with effectively promoting the literature we are producing than the quantity of it. We have published three thematic reports, numerous survey and consultation responses, online decisions and case summaries, and a guide to complaints handling (Listen, Inform, Respond) which are all available from our website. They contain valuable information based on what we have learned from our operational work. The following case study was used as an example in the last complaints-handling course as a prompt for discussion. To give you a flavour for the course material, do take a look and see how the firm gets things wrong. Then it might be worth considering how your firm would have approached the issue.
A squatter bother
Mr A employed a firm to help him remove squatters from his land. Mr A complained that the firm did not provide him with adequate cost information and estimates, and also failed to deal with all the issues in his complaint.
Mr A instructed the firm to remove a number of people from his land who believed they had rights of possession. Mr A received a client care letter but was not provided with a cost estimate. In the letter, and following conversation, the firm requested £500 on account and said that it would need a court order to remove the people from his land. Mr A confirmed that he wanted to go ahead. Mrs A’s daughter visited the firm to discuss the case and was told that it would cost about £1,000, but could be much more if it needed to be defended.
A letter followed the next day saying that the costs to date were £700, a further cheque was required for £300 for court costs and a further £750 was needed on account. The firm also again confirmed that the costs would increase substantially if the case needed to be defended.
Over the next couple of months the firm confirmed that the defendants wanted to defend their claim for possession of the land and that a third defendant now needed to be added. It also sent a further invoice saying that it had set the remaining funds on account against the invoice but a balance of £280 remained. Shortly afterwards, Mr A was informed that two of the defendants were now in prison.
Mr A was then informed that his costs had risen to £1,100, with court fees estimated at £7,500. Two months later the firm sent a further invoice for £1,800. Mr A then received a final bill for just over £1,000. In total Mr A had been billed around £13,000 plus disbursements.
Mr A complained to the firm about the costs and the way it had dealt with his case. The firm responded, saying:
- You may ask for the charges to be assessed by the court. We can also do this, and this is what we intend to do.
- Any allegations of negligence are denied.
- The Solicitors Complaints Bureau was abolished some years ago. Complaints should now be made to the Legal Ombudsman.
The investigator did not see any evidence that the firm revised its advice once it became clear that the case was going to be more complex. However, attendance notes confirmed that Mr A had been told about key steps the firm was taking in the case, particularly as it became more complex.
- What areas of poor service can be identified?
- What would be a reasonable remedy in your view and why?
Mr A accepted an ombudsman decision that the firm should reduce his final invoice of £1,000 by half (to acknowledge poor service, as the ombudsman felt the firm should have known from the beginning that the case was likely to be much more complex) and pay £600 to acknowledge the distress and inconvenience.
This is not the most horrific case study I have included in the Gazette. It is more akin to the day-to-day complaints I see. And I would bet that had the firm just made that extra bit of effort – explaining things better or at least taking the complaint more seriously – it would have prevented the complaint coming to us. Though at least the firm was good enough to signpost the complainant appropriately.
To return to our earlier discussion, a colleague noted that the Co-op’s director of policy was talking specifically about ‘customers’ in her presentation for a recent Westminster Legal Forum. As one of the high street brands leading the charge of commercial firms into legal services, this might serve as a warning to traditionalists.
Having said this, ‘client’ and ‘customer’ are just words. Providing a decent service is the most important thing. And that means sensibly estimating costs, keeping people updated throughout and being approachable. If things go wrong then take any complaints seriously. Your reputation may just depend on it.