But your reputation is not the only thing that might benefi to from a robust approach to complaint handling. In fact, new independent research, commissioned by my scheme and carried out by Economic Insight, has revealed that there may also be a commercial benefit. The remit was to evaluate whether there was any benefit to lawyers (including solicitors and barristers) in trying to take complaints seriously and handling them effectively. Findings point towards potential net benefits to the legal sector of between £53m and £80m over a 10 year period. For individual service providers like barristers, this could translate into increased operating profits of around 3%.
And the icing on the cake is the fact that any complaint data you collect or store is also a valuable source of management information. This means you could use your experience of complaints to identify areas for further improvement; seeking out cost efficiencies, for example, or noting what it is that clients most value in their counsel’s service so you can prevent complaints arising in the future.
We commissioned this research as, for too long now, the discussion across the legal profession around complaints is that practitioners must do it because the rule book says so. We wanted to see if we could learn from the commercial world and see what benefi ts might arise in business terms. So, while the report is robust, it isn’t conclusive – but it does give us some sound evidenced economic analysis of what’s in it for you when you are thinking about complaints and how you can benefit from taking them seriously; and not just because the regulatory rulebook tells you that you must.
The research applies broadly, from individuals up to medium sized firms, and the report, titled The Business Case for Good Complaints Handling in Legal Services, also includes some barrister specific feedback. For instance, it recognises that the nature of the impacts identified for sole-practitioner style firms are likely to be broadly applicable to barristers, at least in instances where there is direct client access. And, as with sole practitioners, it is unlikely that an individual barrister would need to go as far, in terms of investment, as larger firms who might invest in things like a client relationship management (CRM) system, which may not be needed when delivering a more bespoke service.
However, the report does argue that barristers often have access to some level of administrative support by virtue of being part of a Chambers, which, in principle, could assist them in managing complaints more systematically. This differentiates barristers from other sole practitioners. In essence, though, the report recognises some real benefits to barristers. It concludes: “factors that drive the expected benefits of improved complaints handling would still seem to apply; intuitively our view is that there is likely to be a business case for barristers having a good complaints handling process.”
Time rather than financial commitment
This is all to the good, but of course you will now be wondering what kind of outlay you need to put in place to make it happen. And the report does concede that, whether an individual operator or a medium sized firm, more resource would probably be required to achieve an improvement. Fortunately this wouldn’t need to be in the form of an upfront financial investment for barristers. Rather, the commitment is to personal time and how much of it you choose to give to handling complaints when they make their way to you. You may also need to invest some time prior to receiving any complaints, implementing a system that will make you more efficient in the long run.
But what is reassuring about those top-line figures – millions in value to the industry and a 3% increase in your personal operating profits – is that they are worked out as a net benefit i.e. after any investments you would be likely to make have been factored into the equation. This suggests to me that improving your complaint handling process is a no-brainer.
A clear complaints procedure
So, how should you approach complaint handling? Well having a clear process in place from the start means you are ready to deal with a complaint when the time comes. Some things to consider are: Making your complaints process accessible to all, including vulnerable clients and those with special needs or requirements. You should be contactable by email, phone and letter preferably. But remember, complaints do not need to be made in writing so you need to be
alert to any client contact that looks like a complaint.
Appointing someone to act as a focal point for complaints will help ensure they are managed appropriately. And if you don’t have this kind of administrative support, you should consider dedicating some of your time to identifying complaints and making sure they don’t go unanswered.
And of course, make sure that you keep a record of the complaint along with any relevant documents. If you are unable to resolve the complaint and it proceeds to the Legal Ombudsman, we’ll ask you for a record of any contact with the complainant to assist our investigation. But you’ll also be able to refer back to these documents in the event of any queries from a complainant throughout your own complaints process.
With regards to the process itself, our experience tells us that there are three fundamental things you can do to ensure complaints are dealt with effectively. The mantra is quite simply ‘Listen, inform, respond’. Listening entails identifying when a complaint is being made. If a client is unhappy for any reason, identifying that there is a problem early might help you to nip it in the bud and prevent the issue escalating into a formal complaint. This also requires you to understand the reason behind a complaint or issue. For instance, is the client unhappy about your costs or the length of time a case is taking to proceed?
Once you know what the problem is, you should acknowledge the complaint as soon as you can and inform your client what you intend to do next. This means providing a map of options; for example offering an informal route to resolving the complaint, or offering a more formal route which might include a thorough investigation of what went wrong. Also, spell out the implications; explain that you won’t be charging to handle the complaint and that it won’t prejudice or disrupt their case. Also, let them know how long you expect to take to resolve any issues.
Finally, respond to the complaint by sharing your findings and conclusions with your client. Make it clear that you have taken all of the facts into consideration, and if you find that you have provided a poor service, offer the client a suitable remedy. If you think the complaint is without merit at this point, then explain your reasons why. And don’t forget to tell them about the Legal Ombudsman.
Adam Sampson is the Chief Legal Ombudsman