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Ploughing a lone furrow

16 June 14

The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission is working to assist sole practitioners in dealing with complaints

by David Buchanan-Cook

In 2012, the SLCC commissioned research by TNS-BMRB which, among other things, looked at those complaints which solicitors were resolving themselves – i.e. without the need for a formal referral to the SLCC. The research indicated that on average, approximately half of all complaints were being resolved at this “first tier” stage. 

One key finding of the research was that sole practitioner firms found it significantly more difficult to resolve complaints than larger firms, resolving 45% of their complaints compared with 63% for firms with three partners or more.

At first glance, that seemed understandable. Where a complaint is always going to be about the person complained to, it is difficult for the sole practitioner to take an objective view. In particular, the ability to shirk the natural tendency to take any voiced dissatisfaction as a personal criticism must be difficult. However, rather than try to guess the reasons,  earlier this year we decided to engage with a small sample of sole practitioners to gain a better understanding of their specific challenges in dealing with complaints. The ultimate aim of the exercise was to provide guidance to assist sole practitioners. 

The results 

The vast majority of sole practitioners agreed with our starting premise that it was more difficult for them to deal with complaints than for those working in larger firms.  The majority also highlighted personal involvement with the case as a main barrier for dealing with a complaint, closely followed by lack of peer support and the disproportionate time and resource implications.   

In terms of the methods used to deal with complaints, only one of our sample used more than one method when dealing with a complaint. Half of the sample used an external reviewer to deal with their complaints, usually in a reciprocal arrangement. 

We also asked the group to comment on the extent and usefulness of available training in complaint handling. Again, the majority view was that there was scope for more tailored guidance and training, with approximately a third responding that workshops in this area would be their preferred resource.   

Next steps 

On the basis of this survey, we are currently working with the Law Society of Scotland’s Professional Support team and Connect2Law to design a series of bespoke training modules and workshops. These will be specifically aimed at providing practical guidance for sole practitioners to help prevent the most common types of complaints and promote best practice to handle complaints when they do arise. 

In addition, we will be sharing the detailed findings of our survey, and inviting further dialogue and suggestions, at the Law Society’s forthcoming High Street and Sole Practitioner conference in Dundee, and the Connect2Law annual conference at Gleneagles in October.  

In conclusion, I would like to thank our team of volunteer sole practitioners for their contribution to our work, and congratulate them on their 100% response rate!

David Buchanan-Cook is Head of Oversight at the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission. Oversight is the area of the SLCC responsible for overseeing how the professional bodies deal with conduct complaints; monitoring and reporting trends in complaints; and producing guidance and best practice notes on complaint handling.

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