Many client-care letters (CCLs) get the lawyer/client relationship off on the wrong foot, reinforcing preconceptions of lawyers’ letters as complex and difficult to read, and not providing the information that consumers actually want, new research has found.
Commissioned jointly by the Legal Services Consumer Panel and all of the frontline legal regulators, it highlighted eight key principles to improve CCLs (see bottom of story for the list) which the regulators will use to inform their work.
The qualitative study, conducted by Optimisa Research, followed “growing recognition that the language used by legal services providers and the methods of communication used are a major barrier to individuals understanding and engaging with legal services”, it said.
“Within this study, we found that communications offered the most tangible example of an uneven relationship between legal services providers and their consumers.”
Examples of this included providers being demanding in setting clear deadlines for consumers to provide information, “and yet often proving to be non-committal in setting deadlines for themselves and/or failing to meet their own deadlines”, as well as “using unfamiliar and complex language that was sometimes construed as an attempt to put the legal services provider on a pedestal”.
At times, communications were also thought to reinforce a perceived lack of empathy in the industry.
Optimisa added: “That said, perceptions of legal services providers were not always negative, and again communications played a key role in determining higher satisfaction levels.”
The need for a CCL was universally recognised, and consumers preferred a letter, so as to signify the importance of the communication, although a back-up email was welcomed. Unsurprisingly, the rigour with which it was read differed among participants.
“There was not always felt to be a strong need to engage with these communications, as they were perceived by some to simply confirm previous discussions and act as a point for future reference if needed. This was particularly true where consumers had stronger relationships with their legal services provider, and where legal issues were viewed as more routine or familiar (for example, conveyancing).
“However, it was also clear that for some consumers, low confidence in understanding legal communications coupled with the perceived complexity of the information provided were also major barriers to engagement.”
The CCLs tested in the research “often did little to challenge negative preconceptions of legal services communications as complex and difficult to read”, Optimisa found.
“Initial impressions were often that they were unnecessarily lengthy and included largely generic information. When prompted to read these communications, consumers tended to find it difficult to pick out the key information due to a lack of signposting, dense bodies of text, unfamiliar terms and heavily caveated language.
“While these perceptions were fairly universal, it was clear that the issues are heightened for the most vulnerable consumers for example those with low literacy levels, visual impairments, or for whom English was a second language. Although many vulnerable consumers had coping mechanisms in place (such as asking for assistance from friends or family), many of these were not fit for purpose, involving high effort, and potentially meaning that CCLs may just be ignored.”
The research identified a “disconnect” between the information provided and/or prioritised in CCLs and information that consumers were interested in. Consumers were looking for information that was personalised to their specific case – confirmation of a named contact, scope of the agreed work, fees and charges, likely timescales, details of next steps/any actions that were required – but this was often hidden, if provided at all.
Instead lawyers included more generic information, such as terms of business, that was perceived to be less pertinent at that point in time. It was suggested that alternative means of conveying regulatory information, like complaints procedures, might be more effective in a separate leaflet that consumers could be signposted to.
Indeed, prioritising complaints information was seen by some consumers as indicating that the legal services provider was not confident and expected problems.
The current practice led to CCLs that were often six or more pages long. “They pad it out to make it seem worth the money,” said one of those who took part in the research.
On fees, Optimisa said consumers understood that it might sometimes be difficult to provide accurate estimates, especially for more complicated cases such as divorce.
“However, consumers assumed that the legal services provider would have worked on multiple similar cases and as such should be able to provide an accurate estimate based on their previous experience and expertise. The provision of accurate, personalised estimates was also believed to demonstrate that the legal services provider had listened to the consumer and fully understood the specifics of the case.”
Elisabeth Davies, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, said: “Client-care letters are mostly ineffective at conveying the information consumers prioritise, such as cost, timescales, and basic client-relation contact details. Worryingly, the research also shows that client-care letters do not meet the needs of vulnerable consumers.
“There is an urgent need for approved regulators to rise to the challenge of supporting providers to deliver improved communication to consumers. The findings of this research must now inform a well-considered and targeted approach to addressing the communication needs of consumers, vulnerable consumers included.”
The eight key principles to improve client-care letters
- Show a clear purpose – Provide the purpose of the letter and the importance of reading it, upfront.
- Keep it concise – Recognise that the ideal length is one to two pages. If this is not feasible, use short sentences, bullet points and headings to break the information up.
- Put it in plain English – Avoid using legal terms, archaic or complex language. Minimise the use of vague and / or heavily caveated sentences.
- Prioritise information – Focus on the information which is perceived to be most relevant to the consumer and ensure a logical flow.
- Personalise information – Provide details on the consumer’s specific case, for example their estimated costs and not general estimated costs. Tailor the letter so that irrelevant information is excluded. Use personal pronouns so it is clear you are talking to the individual.
- Make it easy to read – Use line spacing and a large font size (minimum size 12). Use headings to make the letter easy to navigate and avoid dense paragraphs.
- Highlight key information – Use visual tools such as bold text, headers, summary boxes, tables or diagrams, to make it easier for consumers to pick out key points.
- Consider additional opportunities to engage clients – While there should be a clear reference to the complaints procedure in the client-care letters, consider whether more detailed coverage is better delivered in separate leaflets; or whether reminders could be sent later on in the legal process, to ensure that this information was understood.