Set free – but beware complaints

Now that the SRA’s Standards and Regulations (STARS) are in force, replacing the SRA Handbook (2011), freelance solicitors are now free to undertake reserved legal activities.

This is, of course, a new career pathway for solicitors seeking to go it alone, but the profession should resist the (understandable) temptation to ignore the issue of freelance solicitors on the basis it does not affect them. Because it does.

This is because it is highly likely solicitors working in SRA-regulated firms will come across a freelance on the other side of a case or transaction at some point, so all solicitor and firms should ensure they are familiar with recent Law Society practice notes. It’s worth noting that there have been concerns raised around particular risks for law firms where freelance solicitors are ‘on the other side’ of transactions – that they could be sued if something went wrong.

The concerns are unsurprising given that freelance solicitors are only required to have “adequate and appropriate” personal insurance if they are offering reserved legal activities. Should a problem arise, the deepest pocket is most likely to be the target of any claim – the law firm.

Freelancers in practice

Ahead of the implementation of STARs, the Law Society issued a useful practice note (PN) for freelance solicitors and, at the start of the year, a practice note on handling complaints.

The Society’s PN on freelance solicitors is important reading for all, not just for freelance solicitors or those considering going down that route. Solicitors working in SRA-regulated firms who may encounter a client matter where another party is represented by a freelance solicitor must be familiar with it.

The PN focuses on the new freelance solicitors’ model for “solicitors genuinely working alone”. The STARs impose different restrictions on freelance solicitors performing reserved legal activities and non-reserved legal activities. The PN sets out the limitations of working as a freelance solicitor and their obligations.

In the context of complaints, the freelance solicitors’ obligations in terms of complaints handling and signposting are the same as for a firm.

Handling complaints

Receiving a complaint may be the first indication something is wrong with the service you offer and it is vital to respond to them adequately. If you do not, your reputation could be at risk. Apart from anything else, solicitors are required by the solicitors’ code of conduct to treat clients fairly and deal with complaints “promptly, fairly, and free of charge”.

Effective complaints management should not be considered a necessary evil (however unpleasant it is to be on the receiving end), but an opportunity to improve your services, enhance your reputation and build trust with clients.

Complaints are a fact of professional life – in every walk of life. Perhaps freelance solicitors will attract a correspondingly greater number of complaints as they start out on what is a novel professional route. But it is how they respond to complaints that will be telling.

The Society’s new PN on complaints handling is relevant to all law firms, sole practitioners authorised by the SRA and individual solicitors (as well as RELs and RFLs). And it makes clear that the solicitors’ code of conduct applies to freelancer solicitors

Complaints in relation to freelance solicitors (and solicitors working in unregulated entities) will still fall under the jurisdiction of the Legal Ombudsman (LeO). Also, freelance solicitors are responsible for handling their own complaints in the same way as sole practitioners are. This means they must, for instance:

  • Ensure they have an appropriate procedure for handling complaints about the legal services they provide.
  • Comply with the SRA’s Transparency Rules (ie. they must publish the required details of their complaints procedure and appropriate costs information on their website – or in print if they do not have a website)

Understanding

Do you seek to understand a complaint? According to research by Consumer Focus, 39 per cent of people who complain to a law firm end up not being satisfied with their provider's understanding of their complaint. The research also showed that it is important for clients to feel that a named individual has taken ownership of their complaint, and that proper records are made so that they do not have to repeat their story.

And as the PN warns: “You should never ignore complaints, even if they appear minor. A complainant may escalate the complaint, and even if they do not, they may share their dissatisfaction with others, damaging your or your firm’s reputation.”

In many situations, the issue is not so much the complaint itself but how the person or business (or institution) responds to it. A fast, efficient response with an apology, corrective action or appropriate compensation, depending on the particular circumstance, should prove a beneficial experience for both sides.

If, for instance, you buy a coat from John Lewis only to find that after a week, the hem is dropping, you will want to take it back to the store and complain. If the manager attempts to shift the blame to the manufacturer or suggest you must have dragged it on the floor, and refuses to offer a solution – you will understandably be angry. But if they apologise and offer you a refund or a replacement without any quibbles – that is valuable customer service that will bring you back in future. Furthermore, you are likely to recommend the store to others on the basis of its good customer service.

Note that if a complaint reaches the LeO, the solicitor’s handling of the complaint will be considered when a decision is reached. The LeO could conclude that they have not provided a fair and reasonable service, even if the actual initial complaint was unfounded.

 

 

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