Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures
Complaints are a law firm’s best source of market intelligence. I’ve heard this said countless times in recent years, previously by the Legal Complaints Service and its many forebears, and now by the Legal Services Board (LSB). “Many lawyers are missing the chance to learn from substantial numbers of consumers who make a complaint,” said LSB chief executive Chris Kenny last week.
It may well be true.
But hardly any lawyer believes it.
“The majority of respondents interviewed considered the legal firm as defensive or dismissive of the individual’s complaint,” said pollsters YouGov last week in their research on complaints handling  for the LSB. “These words were used repeatedly throughout the interviews to describe how their complaint was received.”
They continued: “There seemed to be a pervasive perception that the solicitors were ‘out to look after themselves’ and not the clients, even where there is a dedicated complaints individual within a firm. This meant many interviewees felt resigned to the fact that their complaint would not be investigated fairly and openly.”
Little in the research will have come as a surprise to those who have tracked the progress (or lack of it) that lawyers have made over the years in dealing with complaints. Though it indicated patchy improvements in complaints handling, but not signposting, in the wake of the LSB’s requirements coming into force last October, the research did not really have enough time to assess the impact of these changes. So it is essentially a benchmarking exercise against which future findings will be judged.
But in itself it speaks poorly of a profession (mainly solicitors, obviously) not meeting its clear obligations over complaints. ’Twas ever thus, of course. And you don’t have to look far for the reason why – the research shows clearly that the less information a client has about how to complain, the less likely he or she is actually to do it. Why bring that trouble upon yourself by making it easy for them?
One answer may be that it is a way to retain clients and have them recommend you on. Consistent with every other survey on this topic, recommendation from friends and family was the main reason the people surveyed chose their lawyers.
So it is a shame that the research did not track how the resolution of their grievance made people feel about their lawyer. We all know from personal experience that a positive outcome to a complaint can make us feel better about the organisation than we did before the cause for complaint arose.
I don’t expect service providers to be perfect but it is how they react when things aren’t perfect that counts. A few years ago, the RAC left me sitting for ages on the hard shoulder of a motorway. I complained afterwards and they provided a lengthy explanation of what went wrong, an apology and a free extra three months on my membership. I happily remain an RAC member, knowing they treat customer care seriously.
Of course, a substantial number of people surveyed did not complain at all (and remember, this sample was made up exclusively of dissatisfied clients). Whatever the reasons for this – and there are many, exposed in the report – a whole load of recommendations went with them.
It is trite, but no less true, to suggest that a better way to head off complaints is to provide a good service (as distinct from good advice), rather than make it hard to complain. And one way or another, firms will have to get into line. The Legal Services Board is breathing down the necks of the regulators on this issue, and their likely response is in turn to breathe down the necks of those they regulate.
In this context, a few disciplinary scalps may not go amiss, especially of those firms which the research found are so hostile as to charge people to complain. You have been warned.