Publish and be damned
There is nothing like a discussion about consumer complaints to get lawyers’ heckles rising. Argue there is no such thing as an unjustified complaint and you get short shrift. Remind them it was the Law Society’s diabolical complaints’ handling that kicked off legal reform in the first place and you get a glowering look. Mention the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) and you’ll get thrown out of the room.
Still, I’ve always enjoyed a heated debate and I haven’t yet shied away from telling lawyers uncomfortable truths. You wouldn’t expect me to start now, so here’s three cheers for the publication (finally) this week of complaints data about law firms. Actually it’s not that exciting, if only because the majority of the 772 firms named by the LeO were found to have acted properly, which is, I admit, a good thing.
According to lawyers, making this information public is a disgraceful attack on the profession and tantamount to ‘naming and shaming’. It is, of course, no such thing. The website includes only factual data (the names of firms or individual lawyers and the number of decisions and remedies ordered) intended to provide, in the words of chief legal ombudsman Adam Sampson, ‘objective information about the way the market is operating’.
True, it’s unlikely consumers will make much use of the data in its current form when looking for a solicitor, but that misses the point. As well as helping consumers understand what they can expect from the LeO, the real value is in promoting a culture of openness and transparency across law firms and encouraging them to improve their own performance.
Solicitors’ hostility towards consumer complaints, never mind making information about them generally available, is baffling. It is common practice by other ombudsmen to publish and most corporate and public sector organisations not only regard complaints as valuable market research but also recognise the positive publicity garnered when things are put right.
It sounds crazy, but believe it or not unsatisfied customers who have their problem dealt with effectively are ten times more loyal than initially happy customers. Proof, if proof were needed, that writing complainants off as people who don’t want to pay their bill, or trivialising the emotional distress they’ve suffered because you took a month to call them back, is self-defeating.
That is something for all lawyers to chew on, whether they are QualitySolicitors or Clifford Chance, conveyancers, employment solicitors or top litigators. Furthermore, the Legal Services Board has told legal regulators they will have to collect evidence of where lawyers are failing on quality and pass information held on professional registers to those helping consumers choose a lawyer.
If you think the nice little tables published by the LeO are an aberration, you won’t like what’s coming when comparison websites, complete with the full-on horror of real consumer feedback, hit the web. Solicitors from Hell, which can quite easily be dismissed as the ranting ground of the unreasonable, will seem like a walk in the park.
Otherwise perfectly normal people, possibly even your neighbours or friends, could write something not altogether favourable about your law firm that, rather than being libellous, is actually true. Unlike the LeO data, other consumers might actually read it and decide no thank you, I’ll take my conveyancing somewhere else. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.