Quality and competence are not the same when providing legal advice

First published on Law Society Gazette In Business Blog - Click here to see full discussion.

Diane Hayter, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, is right in saying that ‘CPD is an insufficient check of quality’ 1 April). In the eyes of the client, ‘quality’ is a combination of legal expertise and service delivery, and the two elements are inextricably linked.

‘Perception is reality’ in the eyes of the customer and the most accurate advice delivered late will be perceived as poor quality service.

Last week I met the owner of an SME who had recently instructed the firm that I was working with. As I do, whenever I have the opportunity, I asked: ‘What had prompted them to move from their previous legal adviser?’

They explained that the previous solicitor was awfully slow, never answered the phone at lunchtime or after 5pm, and did not work on Fridays, as that was when he played golf. They never mentioned the quality of the advice they had received, just how frustrating it was that he was never available when they needed him.

At dinner parties, an explanation of what I do (marketing law firms) always unleashes a stream of ‘bad experience with a solicitor’ stories. A property developer had recently concluded a deal with a public sector tenant that had taken over six months, despite it being a fairly straightforward lease. The tenant’s solicitor was with a leading national law firm and both parties to the deal felt that she had strung things out unreasonably, especially given the lack of other activity in the commercial property market. The tenant was not impressed and has no intention of using them again.

As is often the case with dissatisfied clients, they did not complain, they simply moved their business elsewhere.

In either case, a peer review as proposed by the Legal Services Consumer Panel, may have given the written legal advice top marks. However, as neither client had complained, it would probably not uncover that each client felt that the quality of service received was poor – so poor that they would not use that solicitor again.

While solicitors may fulfil their CPD quota, there is no such obligation on receptionists, secretaries and other support staff who play a vitally important role in contributing to client satisfaction. Shouldn’t their role be included in an assessment of quality too? It is certainly assessed by the client as part of the overall experience.

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