Anjali Mouelhi, regulatory policy adviser, provides some top tips on how good practice can prevent complaints from happening in the first place and from escalating and when they do.

The Legal Ombudsman’s (LeO) complaints data for 2019-20 revealed that in-house complaints handling was adequate in 75% of the complaint cases it investigated, but was inadequate in the remaining 25% of cases. Accordingly, there is room for improvement for in-house complaints handling in order to avoid escalation to LeO, where case fees could be unnecessarily incurred. Complaints are most frequently about work in conveyancing, family law and wills and probate, which mirror the most commonly used legal services.

So, what should you do? If you look at matters from your clients’ perspective you can tweak certain elements of your processes to maintain high service standards which in turn will help prevent or reduce the number of complaints. Top tips to stop complaints from arising or from escalating include the following:

1. Adapt your communications with clients

In most cases, retainers are concluded to the satisfaction of clients, but there will be occasions when clients indicate dissatisfaction with some element of the service provided. If a client is not happy, it’s important not to take any negative feedback personally. Mostly, lawyers do their best for their clients but there may be times when updates on progress or responses are delayed. Where you are responsible for a delay, it is important that you communicate with the client promptly, apologise and take ownership for the mistake. If you attempt to deflect blame on others, this will most likely antagonise your client more.

In situations where you are not at fault, it’s important to acknowledge any concerns the client has and to give clear explanations to maintain the client’s trust and confidence in your service.

2. Manage expectations

In July 2019 the SRA published its Maintaining service standards and reducing complaints report (‘SRA report’). One of the key findings of the report was the disparity between the expectations of the legal services user and that of the profession. The SRA’s report concluded that solicitors need to be more aware of their clients’ expectations. This is demonstrated by 48% of the public saying that they highly value being given a clear explanation of a legal process by their solicitor, however only 23% of the profession thought this would be highly valued.

The report further found that most service complaints from clients were about delay, advice and costs. The SRA research found that 55% of complaints were about a failure to keep clients updated and 47% about delay.

There are easy fixes to reduce complaints around these issues:

  • manage your client’s expectations from the outset around the process and time scales for the matters you are dealing with;
  • utilise your case management systems to remind you to send updates – even if it is to say that there is no change, the client will have some reassurance that you have not forgotten about their case;
  • don’t make promises you can’t keep – it’s important to ensure that you only promise what you can deliver and that the time frame you set out is realistic.

3. Comply with your regulatory obligations

According to the SRA’s report, 98% of firms provide information about their complaints procedure at the start of the process, usually in their initial client care letter. However, surprisingly, 37% of legal service users say they were not told about the complaints procedure. The report goes on to say that one in three people do not know that they have to complain to the law firm to begin their complaint. It also says that many consumers do not always recall this information and suggests that firms could do more to present information more clearly.

To comply with your regulatory obligations, when first instructed you must tell your client in writing about:

  • their right to complain about the services and charges
  • how a complaint can be made
  • the right they have to make a complaint to LeO and when they can make this complaint

Complaints must be dealt with promptly, fairly and free of charge. Firms must also publish their complaints procedure and details of how to complain to LeO and the SRA on their website.

If the complaint has not been resolved via your firm’s complaint process, you must inform your client of their right to complain to LeO and provide them with the Ombudsman’s contact details and the timeframe for doing so. Although this is both a regulatory and legal requirement according to the SRA report only 34% of firms comply with this requirement (see additional resources below).

4. Train your staff

Ensure that your staff are trained to identify a complaint and are familiar with and able to follow your firm’s procedure when handling complaints. It is important that they are empowered to resolve issues as quickly as possible or to have access to more senior colleagues, to assist them in dealing with an unhappy or challenging client.

5. Analyse customer feedback – the good, the bad and the ugly

The SRA collects data on complaints from practices as part of its annual renewal process. However, keeping good records of complaints is an essential exercise as it provides useful data. It can help your firm to:

  • identify trends in complaints and areas of service needing improvement
  • assess the effectiveness of your complaints management process
  • build up an understanding of appropriate remedies to common complaints
  • assess whether any policy/procedure changes are reducing the number of complaints, and
  • identify any training needs

Consider contacting clients to find out if they were satisfied with how their complaint was handled and let them know what you are doing to avoid the problem in the future.

Help and support

If your law firm is grappling with a complaint and would benefit from some free support from the Law Society’s Lawyerline helpline service, then a special Complaints Clinic will be running on Wednesday 29 September 2021 between 2-5pm. You can also call the helpline on 0207 320 5720 Monday-Friday 9am to 5pm.