Michelle Garlick, a partner in Weightmans’ professional risk and Compl-i consultancy team, offers common-sense tips on how to handle complaints from clients
Regardless of size or sector, all law firms will face client complaints at some stage, but failure to handle a complaint in-house can lead to your client seeking help from the Legal Ombudsman or – if it amounts to an allegation of negligence – suing. To ensure initial complaints are dealt with swiftly and competently, a few key steps from the SRA Code of Conduct 2011 are outlined below:
- Draft a clear written complaints policy which is readily available to clients;
- Appoint a senior individual to oversee complaints;
- Take careful details of the complaint and acknowledge it promptly – within three days. Set a fair and realistic deadline – usually 21 days, and provide your client with a contact in the meantime;
- Notify external advisors immediately if necessary – there may be an opportunity to resolve matters that will be lost by delay. If the complaint amounts to a claim or circumstance, notify your professional indemnity insurer;
- Investigate the claim thoroughly, and when drafting your response make sure you are clear and objective, stating your understanding of the complaint and the remedy you propose. Also, outline the changes you are making to ensure this doesn’t happen again and tell the client that if they do not accept your conclusion, they can go to the Legal Ombudsman, and have six months to do so (if you fail to mention the deadline, it will not normally begin to run); and
- Take the action you have promised, and tell the client when you have done so. Always keep a detailed record of actions taken and correspondences.
The proper handling of complaints is largely a matter of common sense, but must be done properly to avoid damaging repercussions. Consult the code and the guidance, investigate properly and communicate clearly, and you are likely to avoid the worst pitfalls.