Vulnerable clients struggle in face of “cold, clinical and chaotic” lawyers

Hill: Providers need to develop their understanding of vulnerability

Vulnerable clients are being disadvantaged by the “cold, clinical and chaotic manner” in which they are treated by some lawyers, a report for the Legal Services Board (LSB) has found.

The report called for “greater consistency and standardisation” in the profession, to ensure that vulnerable clients could understand the legal implications of issues and the language and terms used.

Community Research carried out 30 in-depth interviews with vulnerable clients and 10 with professionals working in support and advice organisations for the report Vulnerability in legal services.

Researchers found that the quality of vulnerable clients’ experiences was “usually determined by the extent to which legal professionals responded to the factors that made them vulnerable”, with the outcome of the case having “far less impact on their lasting impressions”.

Their vulnerability was exacerbated when lawyers had a “cold, clinical or chaotic manner” or similar office space, reinforcing a “sense of power imbalance”.

They were disadvantaged when lawyers failed to set expectations, used technical terms and jargon, and failed to identify or meet their needs, particularly relating to poverty, disability or domestic abuse.

They were also disadvantaged by “lack of empathy and compassion”, particularly when clients had experienced relationship breakdowns, employment issues, injuries or domestic abuse.

Poor communication and client care was a further problem for vulnerable clients, such as failing to keep clients informed or missing deadlines, along with lack of clarity about costs.

Vulnerable clients with positive experiences of lawyers explained how they created a “warm and welcoming environment”, explicitly managing expectations and using “layperson’s language”.

They listened to clients with “empathy and compassion”, especially where experiences had been traumatic and had in place good case management, keeping clients well informed and ensuring costs were transparent.

Vulnerable clients used colourful language to describe their negative experiences of lawyers, including ‘shit show’, ‘conman’, ‘frustrating’, ‘stressful’ and ‘total, utter devastation’. The most commonly used word was ‘confusing’.

Those who had good experiences of lawyers used words like ‘professional’ (the most commonly used word), ‘non-judgemental’, ‘painless’, ‘human’, ‘sympathetic’ and ‘safe’.

Researchers said there was a “need for greater consistency and standardisation in practice across the profession” and an “opportunity for an inclusive design approach”, in which the standard approach was “based on the needs of people when they are at their most vulnerable”.

This should ensure that, whenever someone used legal services, they felt “heard and understood”, and they could “understand the legal implications of their issues, the language and terms used” and what was happening with their case.

They could also “exercise informed choice and feel in control of how their legal issue is managed”.

Matthew Hill, chief executive of the LSB, commented: “Many people can be inherently vulnerable when going to a legal professional, perhaps because they’re a victim of crime, going through a relationship breakdown, or selling a house.

“This can be compounded by their personal circumstances – including having a low income, disability, low literacy or having suffered abuse. So, it is vital that legal services are designed and delivered with these vulnerabilities in mind. When that happens, everyone benefits.

“So, we urge regulators, legal services providers and others to develop their understanding of vulnerability and consider how they can support the development of inclusive services that meet the needs of everyone.”

See a summary infographic of the research here, 13 case studies here, and a report identifying groups of people by their levels of legal need and likelihood to use professional advice here.

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