In civilised life the art of rhetoric is perhaps a man’s most potent weapon. An ability to sway decision makers and establish consensus via a cocktail of well crafted ethos, logos and pathos appeals casts indefatigable shadows over all but those few similarly equipped minds.
Take Cicero, the Roman statesman, philosopher and – most relevantly – lawyer, whose influence remains even today. As an accomplished speaker he would take opponents apart through nothing more than the careful assembly of a few words and sentences. Rapidly his prestige and social standing would grow. Who would be brave enough to challenge such a figure? Perhaps, in Cicero’s case he was too good – eventually he was deemed an enemy of the state and murdered.
An extreme example maybe, but it adds context to findings from a recent report commissioned by the Legal Ombudsman and the Legal Services Consumer Panel; the main finding being that many customers of lawyers find themselves too afraid to complain about poor service. And why? Because often they’re simply too intimidated by their lawyer’s use of language or perceived status.
As the body responsible for handling complaints about lawyers, we often commission or conduct research to identify causes of complaints or reasons for the complaint making it through our doors, rather than – as in an ideal world – being resolved by the lawyer themselves.
This latest piece of research analysed the attitudes and experiences of first-tier complainants within legal services to understand what typifies both good and bad complaints handling. And it investigated why people complain to us without first making a formal complaint to their lawyer or waiting for the eight week mandatory period a lawyer has to respond to pass – what we call a ‘premature complaint’.
What we discovered was that many customers were likely to recommend a lawyer based on a good complaint outcome, despite the initial negative experience.
And yet, despite being good for business, the report showed that some lawyers still aren’t handling complaints effectively, with customers claiming they felt ‘intimidated or threatened’ by their lawyer, leading some of them to drop the complaint.
As a result we’ll be working with regulators in the industry, such as the Legal Services Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority, to help them address issues around complaint handling and hopefully to suggest ways of improving lawyers’ and law firm’s internal processes. That way, we hope to reduce the amount of complaints coming to the Legal Ombudsman prematurely, or even at all.
Interestingly, we also need to look at what we have learned from the research about how my office functions. For instance, some felt we should be clearer about what we do and build awareness of the Legal Ombudsman, and granted – we’re constantly looking for ways of improving consumer awareness of our service, our media presence being one route. We’re also reviewing our website to make it more accessible and have been canvassing the views of minority groups to see what more can be done to reach them. But, ultimately the obligation is on lawyers to signpost customers to us if they can’t resolve a complaint. And not enough lawyers are taking this obligation seriously. Again, we’re working with the profession – and this may be something we look at in more detail with regulators – to ensure anyone using a lawyer is made aware of our service.
Since launching in 2010 we have received over 73,000 complaints with a fair proportion of these closed as premature. So, the need to challenge this consumer perception of lawyers as intimidating – one of the chief causes of premature complaining – is a priority. I have some considerable experience of lawyers to draw on having been Chief Legal Ombudsman now for two years; so I know that this perception is not generally typical of lawyers. Far from it. In fact many lawyers helpfully co-operate in Ombudsman investigations without trying to use legal jargon or their prestigious reputations to bamboozle my team of investigators.
Being lay, in that they don’t necessarily have a legal background, Ombudsman investigators are theoretically open to the same intimidation as that being recognised by customers. But this rarely transpires to be the case. Perhaps, if customers were emboldened to take the same approach as investigators by being direct, objective and confident in their dealings, I suspect we could reverse some of the trends identified in the YouGov report. This is why, as well as updating our guide to good complaint handling for lawyers, we’ve produced a guide for consumers to help them complain more effectively.
Both guides can be downloaded from the Legal Ombudsman website HERE.
Adam is the Legal Ombudsman. Prior to that, he was chief executive of the homelessness charity Shelter.