What I've learned about lawyers and legal complaints in the last two days
I thought I was dreaming about legal complaints this morning, which was a bit worrying as I like to think I have a fairly creative imagination. You can imagine my relief when I realised that, rather than my conscience being overwhelmed by the trials and tribulations of legal consumers, I was semi-sleeping through the chief legal ombudsman’s interview on Radio 4’s Today programme.
That does Adam Sampson something of a disservice, particularly as he was shining a light onto one of my pet hates: lawyers’ apparent inability to prevent consumers having to make complaints about them. Anyone providing a product or service is bound to get some complaints, but I am quite sure that lawyers make it worse for themselves by routinely confusing their clients about their charges, deliberately or otherwise.
Sampson was doing the rounds to publicise the Legal Ombudsman's latest report highlighting how a quarter of its investigations involve cost issues, whether that’s because a consumer felt they’d been overcharged, confused or surprised at the bill they received from their lawyer. As Sampson puts it ‘good service in any sphere includes ensuring that a consumer is not bamboozled, but provided with clear information’. Charging by the hour, not including VAT and talking about ‘disbursements’ is not likely to help make legal costs any more clear for most of us.
I find it utterly extraordinary that there are still lawyers who charge for their services in this way. As Sampson goes on:
'Some lawyers are as yet still reluctant to realist that their clients are also customers. The notion of ‘customer’ turns the traditional relationship between lawyer and client on its head. In most businesses, the customer holds sway and can pick and choose which services to buy from which provider. This type of relationship is increasingly the norm even in the legal sector’.
I have bored myself going on about how lawyers really have to start listening to the likes of Sampson, even if they aren’t going to listen to me. I sat through a whole conference about making complaints last week. It was more interesting than it sounds. I don’t know how many lawyers were in the audience (it wasn’t necessarily aimed at them) but they probably should be made to attend similar events.
Complaints are not necessarily a bad thing, not all the time anyway. In fact, they are probably the cheapest and best form of market research for a business. They provide an important perspective and insight into how services are working and what customers think; and dealing with them properly shows a business takes this seriously. It’s worth it: research shows unsatisfied customers who have their problem dealt with effectively are ten times more loyal than initially happy customers.
There’s probably some way to go before lawyers completely get this. Yet again, yesterday there was a discussion on The charge that the ‘new breed’ of law firm will cause consumer detriment because it will be motivated by profit is absurd. Law firms have always been motivated by profit, just like any other business, but in the past those profits went to the partners not shareholders. Reserved legal work will still be done by lawyers, who are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, and they will still have a duty to put the client first. This does not change because the structure within which they work has changed. Harking back to the ‘good old days’ also ignores that it was the profession’s blasé attitude to customer service and abysmal record on dealing with complaints that got us here in the first place.
I am not going to argue with that, but surely it applies equally to a chain of law shops as it does to a boutique high street firm? The author does miss one crucial point however, consumers also want convenience and to know exactly what to expect in their final bill. He might have a nice dog, but I bet he doesn’t offer the convenience of opening on a Saturday and he probably hasn’t got around to offering fixed-fees yet.
The Legal Ombudsman clearly wants to encourage consumers to shop around when it comes to legal services, particularly in relation to costs. Sampson warns ‘firms that fail to adapt their approach will ultimately lose customers’. Indeed they will.
They will also have to become less adversarial when dealing with complaints more generally. One contributor to the Legal Futures website asked in relation to dealing with vexatious complaints, ‘why is it the lawyer is always the one expected to turn the other cheek?’. Because, sir, you are the one in the position of power. Although I suspect not for much longer.