Getting off on the right foot with your clients
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Administrator
When it comes to client care letters, mother knows best.
A recent Optimisa Research publication (Research into client care letters: qualitative research report, October 2016) gives some clear pointers towards the best way to communicate the complex and technical information you must provide to clients at the outset of their matters. It supports Law Society guidance1Law Society practice note, Client care information, 5 September 2016. that suggests good practice is to send a personal letter relating to the client’s individual matter and a separate terms of business document.
Interestingly, the term ‘client care letter’ meant little to clients, although they recognised expressions such as ‘welcome pack’ and ‘terms of business’. Clients preferred confirmation to be by old-fashioned hardcopy letter. They felt a formal method was more appropriate to signify the importance of the contents (although some appreciated an electronic copy). They wanted it to be written in plain English with legal terms explained using short sentences. A partner at a firm I know asks her mother to read all precedent letters before they are adopted. If her mother doesn’t understand something, it is redrafted.
Short and sweet
Clients did not like lengthy letters – they wanted a maximum of one or two pages. Where that was not possible, they wanted clear signposting at the start of the letter about the things they felt were important to them:
confirmation of their named contact;
scope of the agreed work;
fees and charges (don’t forget any financial/other interest that an introducer has in referring a client to you for non-legal aid work);
likely timescales; and
next steps and action required.
Clients would be happy to see the following in a separate ‘terms and conditions’ document:
terms of business;
regulatory information;
cancellation rights; and
complaints information.
Increasingly, I am seeing terms of business documentation that is set out in a slightly smaller font (but be careful about this and remember to offer alternative formats for people with visual impairment) and in columns. This formatting means more information can be provided in fewer pages than a conventional letter.
What needs to be in the terms of business?
You must inform clients, in writing at the outset of their matter, of their right to make a complaint and details of how to do so. You must also inform them, in writing at the start, and at the conclusion of your complaints procedure, of their right to complain to the Legal Ombudsman, the time frame for doing so and full details of how to make contact. The Legal Ombudsman has changed address a few times so it’s a good idea to check that you are using the correct contact details: PO Box 6806, Wolverhampton WV1 9WJ, telephone 0300 555 0333, email enquiries@legalombudsman.org.uk.
Clients must be made aware of their right to challenge, or complain about, their bill. This includes informing clients of their right to apply for assessment of the bill under Solicitors Act 1974 Pt III. You also need to explain when they may be liable to pay interest on an unpaid bill.
You must inform clients of your regulatory status. Solicitors and most practices will be regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), but some may be regulated by other bodies as well in relation to some services. Similarly, if your firm owns or manages a separate unregulated business to which clients may be referred or introduced, you should include the issues found in chapter 12 of the SRA Code of Conduct (separate businesses). Similarly, you may need to consider the SRA Property Selling Rules, the SRA Financial Services (Scope) Rules and the SRA Financial Services (Conduct of Business) Rules. The latter apply when you are not authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority and carry on exempt regulated activities for your clients.
If you enter into contracts with clients away from your place of business, or following discussions that take place away from the client’s place of business, or are delivered at a distance, you also need to read the Law Society’s practice note concerning the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 SI No 3134.2Law Society practice note, Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013, 18 September 2014.
Under the Provision of Services Regulations 2009 SI No 2999, you need to include:
your VAT number;
details of your compulsory professional indemnity insurance;
details of how to access your detailed professional rules (a link to the SRA Code of Conduct3www.sra.org.uk/solicitors/handbook/code/content.page); and
details of complaint resolution procedures.
 
1     Law Society practice note, Client care information, 5 September 2016. »
2     Law Society practice note, Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013, 18 September 2014. »

About the author(s)

Description: Vicky Ling - author
Vicky Ling is a consultant specialising in legal aid practice and a founder member of the Law Consultancy Network.