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Handle complaints like a pro

14 August 17

Reflections from the SLCC: it suggests that, as the average legal practitioner can expect to be named in at least two formal complaints in their career, we look for the bright side of legal complaints

by David Buchanan-Cook

Most of us are familiar with the theory that it’s not so much what happens in life, but how we deal with it that really counts. Some say success is 10% what happens and 90% how we handle it. 

Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper because he had no good ideas. Abraham Lincoln lost no fewer than eight presidential elections. And JK Rowling had her Harry Potter manuscript rejected 12 times. As we know, they all overcame major setbacks to achieve phenomenal success. 
The message I like to take from these stories is this: success has a lot to do with how we handle the setbacks along the road. Being prepared for problems, handling them well and learning something each time are themes as applicable to legal complaints as to any other challenge we might face in business.
You’ll spot these themes running through our latest guide, Efficient and effective complaint handling for Scottish solicitors. The core premise is that when it comes to complaints, how we handle them is everything.
 
1. Be prepared 
Our latest figures show that every year, the “average legal practitioner” in Scotland has a one in 18 chance of being named in a complaint that reaches the SLCC. Given that only a proportion of complaints ultimately end up in our mailbag, the likelihood of being named in a complaint of some description is significantly higher. If you practise for 40 years, statistically you might be named in two formal complaints. 
Of course, there are factors that might increase this likelihood. Certain areas, for example conveyancing and litigation, tend to generate greater numbers of complaints. Add in what we know about rising complaints across the professional sectors, and you might begin to wonder why you didn’t follow another path. 
However, there are other ways to look at the figures. For one, there may be some comfort in knowing that, if you have already been named in a complaint, it’s an experience many of your fellow practitioners will share. If you haven’t, you can use the statistical likelihood to your advantage. Prepare for the possibility in the same way as you would for any other aspect of your legal career, such as CPD spot checks. Ensure you have a written complaints process and that it is accessible to anyone who may need it – and familiarise yourself with the relevant guidance. Putting good systems in place now will make dealing with any future complaints easier on everyone involved and, from a commercial point of view, save you time in the long run.
 
2. Handle complaints professionally 
When it comes to legal complaints, how you handle these at first tier can transform
the outcome. 
Our guide on first-tier complaint handling advises that, although not always easy, you should try to be empathetic from the outset. Engage openly and try to get a real understanding of the problem. Instead of being defensive, take an open, objective approach based on finding out the facts. 
From the start, you should try to get an understanding of what it is the complainer wants. You might find that the solution is simpler than you expect. Research we carried out, Report on Complaint Numbers and Complaint Handling amongst Scottish Legal Firms, TNS BMRB (2012), showed that more than a quarter of all complaints were resolved by an apology. The Apologies (Scotland) Act 2016 means that an apology is not admissible of anything relevant to the determination of liability. But make sure you check with your professional indemnity insurers before making an apology. 
We also advise that you avoid delay as far as possible. If it’s a complex complaint that might take longer to deal with, let the complainer know what’s happening. Keep them up to date with timescales. 
 
3. Learn from complaints
Your complaints log is a window into what’s going on in your business. Learning from it
and acting on feedback is a vital tool for continued success. 
By keeping a record of complaints, and taking the time to look at this regularly, you will be able to see where systemic issues might be causing problems, and use this information to make changes which will be good for business. 
Ensuring your complaints log holds the right data is vital. If you aren’t sure what a complaints log should look like, or what level of detail should be included, download our sample complaints log from our website. 
With the data on complaints showing no signs of a slowdown, maybe it’s time to adjust our thinking. By regarding complaints less as a business nuisance and more as a business insight, can we put them to use as touchstones on the road to continued commercial success?
First tier complaint handling – a Guide to effective and efficient complaint handling for Scottish solicitors is available to download at scottishlegalcomplaints.org.uk 
 
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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