Why lawyers should welcome complaints and why many won't

The Law Society was remarkably quiet yesterday following the announcement that the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) will ‘name and shame’ lawyers from April next year. If past indications were anything to go by I would have expected a wailing, gnashing of teeth and most of the toys to be thrown out of the pram.

No doubt the decision only to name those with a ‘pattern of complaints’ against them or where it is judged to be in the public interest quelled their opposition somewhat.  All the same, opposing the idea in the first place was pretty absurd given that it was the profession’s shoddy handling of complaints that led to the LeO being set up at all.

Memories are obviously short in the legal profession as is the lack of self-awareness.  For all their complaints about the changes unleashed by the Legal Services Act, in particular alternative business structures, lawyers seem to have forgotten that they brought it upon themselves by giving the consumer such a poor deal for so long.  Some still haven’t got the message.

In June, research by the Legal Services Board found that more than half of dissatisfied legal customers were never told about a complaints procedure by their solicitors and 70% who initially complained gave up when they were unhappy with the in-house process.  Never mind that since October 2010 every practitioner has been required to provide information on a client’s right to complain and how to go about it.  Even worse, the research showed 16% of lawyers may be charging clients who complain about bad service, in breach of their professional rules.

I would say this is unbelievable, but sadly it isn’t.  Lawyers seem to be pathological incapable of dealing with complaints constructively, although you can be sure they will be more than happy to share the compliments around – this was done on a weekly basis where I last worked.  It just goes to illustrate how behind the times most lawyers are when it comes to customer service and how some of them are going to get a nasty shock when competitors who take this seriously enter the market.

There are probably a few reasons for this.  Firstly, it seems to me that lawyers are far more likely to take complaints personally and so as a reflection on their own competence.  On one level this is understandable – in many cases lawyers will have a far closer interaction with their clients than, say, banks or retailers.  But I fear it is also partly down to the fact that many of them think they are always right and, therefore, the customer must be wrong.

Furthermore, it would be fair to say most lawyers don’t really understand customer service very well and so cannot see the value, as well as the danger, in consumer complaints.  As Chris Kenny, chief executive of the Legal Services Board, said ‘…too many lawyers are missing the chance to learn from substantial numbers of consumers who make a complaint.  Improving this situation is an urgent priority for consumer protection, for improving the service itself and for enhancing public confidence in lawyers’.

This cavalier attitude is unlikely to do traditional law firms any favours.  Research by the Institute of Customer Service (which, tellingly, as of October last year, had only one solicitor member) found 75% of UK consumers complain about problems with goods and services and about 77% of those will spread the bad word to three or more people; about half tell five or more.  The abundance of social media networks also means that aggrieved complainers who write about their experience can now have the same impact as a newspaper reviewer.

Even though I’ve worked in and around the legal profession for nearly seven years, I am still shocked by many lawyers’ attitudes to complaints.  Words like ‘vexatious’ and ‘unjustified’ pepper any discussion about it and their indignation suggests there are thousands of consumers out there who get a kick out of spending their lives dealing with intransigent law firms.  The reality is, in most cases, very different.

Most people who complain, depending on the impact the problem has had on them, just want an apology and, where possible, to have it put right.  This is true across the board, whether they are complaining to a bank, the NHS or their lawyer.  So, in fact, most complaints could be dealt with easily and quickly if lawyers employed a bit empathy and humility.  It would be worth it.  Complainers who get a decent response will typically tell five other people, and do so positively.

And please, there is no such thing as an unjustified complaint.  Well, ok, there will always be a few people prepared to try it on over their bill, but for every one of them there will be many more who just weren’t kept informed about costs.  There will also be some complaints that are really about the outcome of the case rather than the way it was handled, but maybe this is because they weren’t properly informed of the risks they might lose.  But unjustified?  No: and until the profession stops getting wrapped up in this idea that consumers like complaining for the sake of it, it is unlikely to get very far.

So what of the LeO’s announcement?  I think it’s struck a reasonable balance between protecting consumers and not penalising the profession for occasional lapses.  The profession can’t seriously object to the naming of serial offenders, those guilty of a systematic failure, or those whose actions have had an ‘exceptional or severe’ impact on consumers.  It has to be right that the minority of lawyers who get it wrong either consistently or spectacularly are put under the spot light.

If there are still lawyers reading who still aren’t convinced, it is worth bearing in mind research on complaints by British Airways.  This revealed that customers whose complaints were dealt with efficiently and politely felt even more positive about the company than they did when everything was right in the first place.  Surprising?  Well maybe, but it shows people appreciate it when you have to put in a bit of extra effort and respond to them as individuals.  The legal profession ignores this at its peril.

Posted in: Legal services

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