Complaints Can Be Good for You...

While people argue over Rick Kordowski's Solicitors from Hell, the complaints bandwagon rolls on and on. The Solicitors Regulation Authority has issued new requirements to law firms on how they are to collect information on complaints.

The SRA's starting point is clear
A perception of poor complaints handling by the legal profession was one of the drivers for the Legal Services Act 2007 (LSA). In response, a fundamental requirement of the LSA is that approved regulators must ensure legal service providers have effective procedures in place for the resolution of complaints. Section 112(1) of the Act also requires an approved regulator to make provision for the enforcement of those requirements.
This is the result of the Legal Services Board's YouGov research on complaints handling, which ought to be compulsory reading for all lawyers. So the SRA will now require law firms to collect data on first-tier complaints in a new way.
The complaints categories down the left hand side are those used by the Legal Ombudsman. The row across the top is self-explanatory and covers the previous 12 months. I will be curious to see what gets inserted into the box marked "other". I also wonder if the categories will capture the full extent of consumer satisfaction. The categories seem to me very much "lawyer-type" ones.

The SRA, following the Financial Ombudsman Service approach, will use the data to construct waves and trends of complaints to allow it to see if there are systemic issues in complaints. The data will also inform the SRA that it has a problem with law firms that aren't handling their complaints properly. (You can see how the Financial Ombudsman Service analyzes its data here.)

This is all part of the risk-based approach to regulation now in train. My guess is that lawyers may well be in for a shock when they start seeing the results of the analyses.

My ever-eager curiosity also wonders how much--if any--of these data will be made public. Some redaction might be needed, but it should be there in the public domain, so at least we could see if things are improving.


Julian Webb said…
It is a start, but it seems a very limited one. One of the difficulties will be interpreting the 'gap' between the complaints received and complaints resolved columns. Wihout more the latter figure seems pretty meaningless. Wouldn't it also be interesting to know how many complaints are rejected by the firm (firms can stillreject complaints as without merit can't they??!) Also, indicators like average response time, and proportion of complaints resolved within (say) three, six and twelve months could make interesting reading...
John Flood said…
You're right, of course. I suspect the gap between the two will be filled by the referrals to the Legal Ombudsman, or it should be. Because it should be like the financial services complaints procedures that after a 8-week period the complaint is meant to be transferred to the FOS. And firms should be telling complainers that that is where they should go next if there's no resolution

I think the main part not addressed by the SRA is what came out of the YouGov research that perceptions of complaint handling are way out of line. And this is why Solicitors from Hell will continue to be a thorn in their side. Curing perception problems is a biggy.

And as for the issues of timing, well that will make interesting reading. Lawyers must get used to the fact that complaints can no longer be addressed in an adversarial manner. I don't think that message will have got through yet.
Julian said…
John it is a truism, and one that Tom Peters deals with a lot, but the only true source of innovation is "Pissed off customers". Having been in practice for 14 years, I had a few complaints and most of them related to costs. If there were issues of service, it was normally because we/the firm had created them by expecting people to bill at all cost without regard to the value or service level. Acting in the best interest of the client should also mean being able to turn work away when you know that you won't be able to complete the job on time or to the very, very best of your ability (lack of technical competency etc). Complaints are handled as a slight against the firm or the fee or both but they should be seen for what they are: A wake up call. Yes, some clients think they know best, and are difficult to please for for heaven's sake lawyers are in the service industry - so serve. I would wager that transparency will not be talked up save by those firms who are proud of their long-standing record.

John Flood said…
Indeed, Julian. Those firms who realize they can learn from complaints will do much better. After all, the most effective form of marketing is word of mouth. Nothing as yet beats it. And it's all too easy to lose a reputation.
Anonymous said…
I am a self employed furniture maker and my firm has been subject to adverse negative publicity like solicitors. Negative publicity does so much damage but suing for libel or slander is not worth the financial costs even if you win. Timescales and unreasonable customer demands are the norm. Solicitors could learn from the furniture industry.
John Flood said…
@Anonymous I agree that unwarranted negative publicity can damage. Customers need educating about realistic outcomes, which maybe something they don't want to hear. Court action is hopeless of course. Communication is the key and lawyers would do well to look at other industries to see how these things are handled.
kris said…
I'm always intrigued by the "Solicitors from Hell may have a point" brigade. Without putting too fine a point on it, Mr K is dancing very close to the s21 Theft Act line. "You pay me £250 or I'll put nastiness about your firm on my site (with the purpose of you losing clients) sounds an awful like threats with menances to me.

As for the "many complaints", I have two points:

1) Where do the complaints tend to come from? I don't have any stats to throw at you, but from experience of working in a legal aid firm, I'm guessing they emanate from the hitherto powerless legal aid client- whose only power is to lord it over their £174.00 per file solicitor/case-worker that if they do not run the case as they want it (i.e. claims with no merit), they will shop them to the SRA so fast their collective, desk-bound little feet won't touch the ground.

That I've never been complained about rests solely on my ability to write file notes which chronicle the 5-10 x daily phone-call insanity on paper and that I insist they sign their own pleadings and my written advice. Trust me, the time I've spent doing this far exceeds the £174.00 my firm gets from the LSC. Legal Helps don't pay and, I my experience, not worth taking.

I also ask potential clients how many other solicitors they've been to before me. Funnily enough, many have sacked their first few solicitors because they didn't run their unmeritorious cases.

Just think of all that time screening legal aid clients - who I can't and don't bill for.

2) I have heard of dentists who drill holes in people's teeth - not because of any decay needing treating, but to ratchet up fees. I understand the GDC regularly take dentists to task for such work.

Indeed, one dentist told me I needed hard-core root-canal & implant treatment. Before pressing ahead, I got a second opinion who said I needed NO treatment. As Destist No 1 hadn't actually performed any treatment, I could not complain to the GDC.

So why all the focus on solicitors? Where is all the outrage for the rogue doctors and dentists? Simple, because Doctors and Dentists still have a profession. On the other hand, many legal aid clients think they can do my job - and they want the letterhead and I to be deployed as they see fit.

So chip away guys. Those of us with self respect are leaving the legal aid complaints minefield in droves.

Maybe you will roll up your sleaves and do a stint at a legal aid firm.

Didn't think so.
John Flood said…
@kris thank you for your thoughtful comments. I suspect a lot of what you say might be true. I think the problem is that people are on the whole nervous of the law and lawyers and have no idea of what normal practice is. Lawyers could have done a better job acquainting clients with the culture of law--and I don't exempt academics from that criticism.

While, as you say, most of your perception arises from legal aid practice, many complaints come from paid service involving conveyancing and the like. Perhaps lawyers haven't been as good at monitoring themselves as other professionals.