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  • Fiona du Feu

Communication is a critical factor in many complaints relating to legal services, according to a recent report by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Fiona du Feu examines 10 common communication areas that can make a difference

To put complaints against law firms in perspective, 80 per cent of those who use legal services are satisfied with the service they receive, according to a recent report by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). However, the report also looks at the experiences of clients who do complain, and the findings are startling.

  • Thirty-seven per cent of complainants do not remember having been given information about how to make a complaint.
  • Over half of all complaints were about failure to keep the client informed.
  • Less than a quarter of solicitors thought it was important to provide information about the legal process, while this was a key issue for nearly half of all complainants.
  • Eighty-three per cent of people want firms to act on or resolve their complaint when they express dissatisfaction. Most commonly, people want an explanation (58 per cent), an apology (39 per cent) or work progressed to resolve their complaint (35 per cent).

This article considers 10 key areas in your complaints process, and how you can avoid the common pitfalls surrounding them.

  1. Do new and existing clients know how to make a complaint?
  2. Does the person in charge of your complaints process have the necessary people skills and authority?
  3. How client-centred is your process?
  4. How do you define a complaint?
  5. How objective is your response?
  6. Have you signposted the next steps available to your client?
  7. Supporting complaints: is your firm shooting the messenger?
  8. Are you using your complaints register effectively?
  9. Can you provide your clients with clearer, more regular information?
  10. How accessible is your language?

1. Provide clear information

The SRA’s report confirms that 98 per cent of firms provide information on their complaints procedure at the start of a transaction. The problem is that 37 per cent of dissatisfied clients said they were not told about it.

Procedures should be presented in a way that it is clear to clients about what to expect. Their complaints must be dealt with promptly, fairly, openly and effectively under the SRA Code of Conduct.

Make sure that new and existing clients know how to make a complaint. Could you put your procedure in bold in your terms and conditions – maybe on page one, rather than page 31? Make sure it’s clearly headed: ‘Your right to complain’. Elderly clients may need extra help by way of increased font size or having documents in paper format, rather than being sent electronically. Have you asked them what they need?

2. Embed effective people skills

In my experience, client care and complaints tend to be best managed by those with strong people skills. Is the right person handling your complaints procedure?

Managing complaints effectively requires a level of seniority. If complaints are handled at too junior a level, there is a risk that attempts to report negative trends may be disregarded and corrective actions not carried out.

Do we tend to assume the ‘correct’ level of knowledge from our clients?

Does the person in charge of your complaints process have the right people skills: empathy; insight; an understanding of the factors that make clients vulnerable; and objectivity? Have fee-earners received recent training on clear communication and bias awareness? This is important, because it is often hard to see the gaps in our own skills without additional support and training. Understanding affinity bias is particularly useful here. Affinity bias occurs (often unconsciously) when you favour others who look like you and/or share your values. For instance, this might manifest as a complaints manager taking a pro-solicitor stance because they may both be solicitors or work for the same firm. In order to view things from a client’s perspective, a complaints manager needs to understand and manage their own biases.

Some firms outsource the complaints analysis role. This guarantees that you avoid internal politics, imposes consistency, and reduces the effect of any unconscious bias. It is also demonstrably objective. In my view, the SRA’s report supports the argument that complaints may be dealt with best not only outside the firm but also by a non-lawyer, since the issues involved are communication failures more often than legal ones.

Don’t forget to provide an alternative route in your procedure for complaints about the complaints manager themselves, though this will not always be possible in a very small firm.

3. Prioritise a client-centred process

Keeping the complaints process client-focused must be your priority. Some clients lack confidence in their day-to-day dealings with a solicitor, let alone taking the huge step of making a complaint. Elderly clients may already feel isolated and vulnerable: some may worry that raising a concern or a complaint might cost them more money. Unless your client is already a sophisticated user of legal services, the mere thought of hiring a solicitor may involve an element of stress, and for many, instructing your firm will coincide with a major life event or trauma.

The process should be as simple and responsive as possible: clicking on a button or filling in an online form. Some clients will prefer writing a letter or calling the office. Regardless, your response should be empathetic and bespoke; we all know when we are being fobbed off with ‘cut and paste’ platitudes.

The report shows a correlation between disability and the satisfactory resolution of complaints. Only 23 per cent of users whose day-to-day activities are limited by disabilities were satisfied that their complaint had been resolved, compared with 43 per cent of service users with no disability-related limitation. The report states that users with disabilities are also less likely to understand a complaints procedure or know how to complain.

Is this because we are making assumptions about how effective our communications are? Think how often in client communications you use the word ‘obviously’. It conveniently allows solicitors to avoid explaining stubborn nuances, and subtly prevents the client having a deeper understanding of the issue.

4. Define what a complaint is

Complaints procedures only work if everyone involved is confident they can spot a complaint. There are often indicators of discontent which, if noticed early on, can prevent a grumble from escalating into open conflict. Triaging client complaints is central to an effective process. But how do you define a complaint?

My suggested definition is as follows.

‘We believe that any indication of dissatisfaction amounts to a complaint and needs to be addressed immediately. The following are descriptions of client activity and the response we expect.

  • A grumble in a conversation: to be discussed empathetically with the client at the time by the fee-earner in charge; a full explanation given; and followed up by email or written confirmation of the position.
  • A concern in writing (text or email): the client to be contacted by phone the same day by the fee-earner in charge; a full, objective explanation given; and followed up by email or written confirmation of the position. The compliance officer for legal practice (COLP) to be copied in.
  • A formal complaint (any media): the client to be contacted by phone the same day by the fee-earner in charge to acknowledge the complaint; the complaints procedure offered; a full note of background to the complaint to be sent by the fee-earner to the COLP within 24 hours; and the fee-earner’s supervisor to be notified.’

Not all complaints will be identified through the complaints procedure, but it’s still important to respond. Grumbles occasionally come to light via client satisfaction questionnaires (CSQs) returned by clients at the conclusion of a matter. All CSQs should be personally read and signed off by the COLP, who should then contact dissatisfied clients to discuss possible resolutions. Clients feel ‘heard’ when their concerns are acknowledged, especially at such a high level, and this can turn a dissatisfied client into a potential ambassador for the practice.

5. Stay objective

How do you separate spurious and genuine complaints, and stay objective in your response? Again, knowledge of our unconscious biases may help here.

Confirmation bias means we tend to look for evidence which supports and validates our own beliefs and understanding.

A complaints manager needs to understand and manage their own biases

Let’s try translating this to a complaint. You receive a complaint, summon the case file and ask the fee-earner for a summary. As a lawyer, your instinct may be to read the complaint first and then look in the file for evidence which contradicts it. Your affinity bias may already be asserting (subconsciously) that the solicitor did everything they should have done.

Being aware of the potential for unconscious bias might mean you address the complaint in a different way, for instance by reading the file first.

You should only read the complaint and identify the key issues once you understand the history of the case and have formally reviewed the file’s compliance (eg by completing your standard file review form). The essential threads of the complaint should be identified and addressed separately, taking into account any repetition. Treat the complaint respectfully, but not defensively.

As you overlay the complaint onto the file, look at the evidence as a whole and identify any vulnerabilities of the client as well as other potential issues. Remember that clients respond as individuals: not every elderly client may be vulnerable, but try to see things from their perspective. A detailed, objective knowledge of the case, combined with sensitivity to the particular needs of vulnerable clients, will best enable you to weigh the complaint’s validity.

To my mind, an appropriate method to respond to a formal complaint is to provide a report (preferably in a table) which sets out and analyses each strand of the complaint, refers to any relevant evidence, and presents conclusions. A tabular format is often more client-friendly than a long letter. Try to be clear and avoid language which is emotive or assigns blame.

Raised voices complaints in balloons

© omadoig@btinternet.com

What if the client is unhappy with your handling of their complaint? Having exhausted your own internal procedures, they may opt to escalate their complaint to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO).

However, onward signposting of complaints by law firms is frequently not clear enough. According to the SRA’s report, only 34 per cent of firms provide information about the LeO at the end of the complaints process despite this being a regulatory requirement. Only four per cent of consumers recall receiving this information at the end of the process and 51 per cent of surveyed firms admitted they do not signpost consumers to alternative dispute resolution agencies to resolve complaints.

Make sure your clients know how to take their complaint further if they wish to: the LeO has a ‘signposting pack’ that may be useful.

7. Inspire a culture of support

Creating the right culture around complaints is important. This involves:

  • taking complaints seriously
  • staying positive about complaints
  • seeing the potential for learning and improvement
  • avoiding blame.

A firm that fails to take complaints seriously risks creating a toxic atmosphere, where fear reigns and nothing changes. Instead, focus on the learning opportunities at different levels which could arise from a complaint. By all means arrange a supervision meeting with the fee-earner concerned and agree competency-based objectives in their development plan, but go further and think about how these objectives could be applied at a departmental level.

For example, if a client charged at an hourly rate feels they have not been updated regarding costs, consider arranging refresher training on good costs management across the departments in your firm which bill on an hourly rate basis. This way, all fee-earners benefit from the complaint.

8. Use your complaints register effectively

There are firms who receive virtually no complaints because they truly understand their clients and communicate effectively with them. These firms can point to glowing CSQs, open-door management, clear communications on key client concerns like timescales, and effective information exchange.

For other firms, a verifiable complaints record is key. If you don’t have one, an auditor may infer that you are not identifying and addressing complaints – even if you are not actually receiving any!

A good register arranges all complaints in chronological order and lists department, fee-earner, theme of complaint, outcome, and date of closure. Presenting the data clearly in a spreadsheet will also help you to identify weaknesses and trends.

9. Communicate regularly

The most frequent subjects of complaints are the failure to: stick to timescales; respond in a timely fashion; and keep the client informed. This is somewhat hard to understand when all these issues remain firmly within the fee-earner’s control.

The report notes that ‘there is some disparity between people’s expectations and solicitors’ perceptions of the key expectations of a good service. The users of legal services want:

  • regular communication about progress (62 per cent)
  • clear information about costs (60 per cent)
  • information about the legal process (48 per cent).

However, only 23 per cent of firms think that one of consumers’ key expectations is a clear explanation of the legal process’ [my italics].

Why are we not communicating these basic facts clearly? Maybe another perception bias is at work here: do we tend to assume the ‘correct’ level of knowledge from our clients?

Consider the mantra: ‘What next? How much? By when?’. If you make it a priority to discuss these points at every client contact, you are likely to avoid most serious communication problems.

When did you last audit your files for plain English? 

Clients expect that they will receive the most information possible on what their case involves, right at the start. A multi-layered approach may work best, with bespoke advice in the client care letter backed up with work-specific leaflets. First-time buyers, for instance, will often be unsure about the conveyancing process and may need considerable help to understand it. The LeO has picked up on this and created a first-time buyer’s guide. Are you using this or something similar to manage your clients’ information needs?

10. Speak ‘client’

Watch out for slipping into ‘lawyer language’, Latinisms or overly wordy sentence structures. Explain concepts clearly and without patronising the client. When did you last audit your files for plain English? Handling complaints effectively, like almost every other legal skill, is about communicating, not obfuscating.

Conclusion

There are no downsides to an effective complaints process. You may already be doing some or all the following:

  • ensuring that all staff follow best practice (through file reviews and spot checks)
  • holding supervision meetings
  • tracking complaints by date and department to achieve key performance indicators and report on these at board level
  • analysing your complaints data to identify corrective actions
  • rolling out further training
  • reviewing your complaints policy and procedures regularly (or, better still, have it independently audited).

If so, you are already alert to the business case for effective complaints-handling. Every complaint offers something to be learned, depending on your willingness to listen. Responsive firms look for learning opportunities and then work hard to get things right. Don’t be the firm that, in the throes of confirmation bias, simply dismisses complaints as unfounded.

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