Posted by Amy Bell, founder of Legal Futures Associate Teal Compliance
One of the first key pieces of correspondence with a new client is your client care letter. Judging by some of the client care letters I’ve seen over the years, there could be more ‘care’ put into constructing the contents of the letter.
The upcoming changes to the SRA Code of Conduct, specifically the 10 new SRA Principles, will have an increased focus on client service – and this means law firms will need to consider much more carefully how they communicate with their clients.
If you want to give yourself the best chance of being compliant with the new code, then it’s well worth making sure you are fully compliant with the current version.
I discussed in detail the new requirements in a ‘Client Care, Conflicts, and Confidentiality’ webinar as part of our compliance officer training programme.
We looked at the 2011 outcomes and how you might practically achieve those – given that the new outcome-focused code will not include indicative behaviours; itself an indication that the SRA is less concerned with the process and more with the result.
The two client-care outcomes most relevant to provision of service in the current code are:
- 4: You have the resources, skills and procedures to carry out your clients’ instructions; and
- 5: The service you provide to clients is competent, delivered in a timely manner and takes account of your clients’ needs and circumstances.
These will be replaced, and expanded on, under the new code in section 3, specifically:
- 2: You ensure that the service you provide to clients is competent and delivered in a timely manner;
- 3: You maintain your competence to carry out your role and keep your professional knowledge and skills up to date; and
- 4: You consider and take account of your client’s attributes, needs and circumstances.
Although there are some changes in the new code, both versions can largely be distilled down into three Cs: competency, capacity and communication.
Competency relating to the skills, training and ability of your staff to deliver legal services. Capacity to provide the right services in a timely manner. Communication to make sure your client’s needs are met and expectations are delivered on.
Resources skills and procedures
In meeting O1.4 of the current code, you should have completed a risk assessment to set out what specific areas of law you provide, the capacity of the staff in terms of caseload, and the competency of the staff dealing in those matters. You may have already done this as part of your budgeting process.
In the world of continuing competence – post CPD – you should have visibility that staff are completing a training needs analysis.
This is reflected in 3.3 of the new code and requires staff keep their knowledge up to date. To ensure compliance here, you should be monitoring the training and learning activity of staff and provide suitable access to resources, textbooks, online sources such as LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters as examples.
Deliver services in a timely manner
O1.5 is copied over into outcomes 3.2 and 3.4 in the new code, giving greater emphasis on client care and service standards.
While competency is covered above, we need to consider what is a ‘timely manner’. Providing legal services usually take as long as it takes, but managing client expectations in terms of the time involved in dealing with their case, means you are much more likely to be compliant with this aspect of the code.
This isn’t just a case of setting out expected timeframes in the client-care letter. but also regularly providing updates as matters progress, or timings change from previous expectations. Doing this properly will also have the happy bonus of reducing the likelihood of complaints at the conclusion of a matter.
So, in considering your own client communications: Are you being clear with a client on how long it’s expected to take? Are you updating clients when timings change? What are your processes for proactively identifying where clients need an update on timescales?
Build into your procedures a review to update clients on changes to timescales, for example if a case goes to litigation, and don’t assume that, because you’ve told the client about changes in the timescales, they understand why those timings have moved and that it’s not a failure on your side to deliver on time.
Client’s needs and communication
Where compliance has often been about standardising and using template documents, this requires that the client’s needs are met and that information and communication is provided based on the needs of the client, not by the limitations of the law firm.
Staff need to be aware of the types of needs that clients might have. For departments not used to dealing with vulnerable people, older people, or in matters of power of attorney, there may be less awareness of the different needs those clients have.
Consider the Legal Ombudsman case earlier this year where a law firm sent a vulnerable client letters full of Latin and technical language despite knowing the client had a learning difficultly and required documents to be in plain English.
If you are using template documents and letters, then perhaps have someone from your marketing team review the content to make sure it is clear and understandable for a layperson.
It’s easy to overlook legal terms as jargon when they are so familiar in a law firm setting, but ‘disbursements’, as one example, won’t mean anything to most people – so you may need to consider other terminology.
What to do next
To stay compliant, start planning your review of the relevant policies and procedures for consistency with the new code and check your client-care letter.
This might prompt you to undertake a full review of your communications, tone of voice, and language used in your correspondence with clients. This would be time well spent for compliance, and, just as importantly, making sure you have happy clients who want to recommend your services!