Well, here is a topic to tempt fate if there ever was one!
I was recently asked by Flat Living magazine to write about what makes ‘good customer service’… I do not doubt that the prevailing view of many businesses asked to write on this topic would be that it is an opportunity to pitch about how wonderful their company is, how efficient and friendly the staff are, and how they are looking forward to helping you along whichever magical journey you are embarking.
However, that’s not me (the pitch bit, not the friendly bit!) and, more importantly, I think I would be doing the reader a dis-service if that was the focus of this piece.
During a plethora of jobs before finding a home in the law, I have worked in retail, hospitality and on helpdesks servicing internal and external business (somewhere along the way I even picked up an NVQ in customer service) and, on reflection, the thing I find most striking about all of those ‘client / customer centric’ roles is that there is no out-of-the-box perfect customer service process which can be universally applied; the customer service process to be adopted depends on the service being provided, and the customer receiving it. If you do not understand the customer, or they do not understand the service, it can be a recipe for disaster.
Many of you will have had some engagement with a lawyer at some stage, whether this was:
- having a Will or Power of Attorney drafted,
- taking advice on an Employment Contract; or
- purchasing / selling a Property.
Assisting someone in Dispute Resolution is not like any of these scenarios. Whereas my non-contentious colleagues have the privilege of making dreams come true, my peers and I are charged with trying to stop the nightmares continuing (I often joke about only being brought out on ‘rainy days’).
With that in mind, and because I try to be as frank with my clients as I would want someone to be with me if it were the other way round, here are the top three things you should expect when instructing your litigation lawyer:
- You will not always hear what you want to hear
The first thing your lawyer will want to do is to advise you on the ‘merits’ of your case. This means they will tell you its strengths and weaknesses. Often a client will only tell their lawyer what they think their lawyer wants to hear, or cherry pick the information which is helpful to their case – do not do this. If a lawyer is only provided with half the information, any advice they give is based on imperfect evidence and as such the advice may be compromised.
You may go to your lawyer and say:
“I want an injunction / I want to sue them …”,
and whilst it will be disappointing if your lawyer says that you:
“do not have a cause of action (legal basis to do what you have asked) / have no defence”,
it is a far better service to be told this at the beginning rather than just hearing “yes of course” and discovering several thousands of pounds later that you had no case in the first instance.
If you are faced with a litigation lawyer who simply says ‘yes’ to everything, you may want to ask them to clarify what the weaknesses and risks of any dispute might be also, because regardless of how good your case might be, there will always be a risk, no matter how small, that you might lose and/or become liable for your opponent’s legal costs.
- There are no guarantees
Whenever a caveat is used, ie: ‘you could try this but there are no guarantees’, often a client will think this is some form of back-covering technique being engaged by their litigation lawyer to protect them from blame being allocated if it all goes wrong. As mentioned, it is part of a litigation lawyer’s job to warn you about the risks, but fundamentally your lawyer will be aware of the ‘inherent litigation risk’.
What this means is that once you get to court, all bets are off. No matter how strong a case may seem on paper, your litigation lawyer has no way of guaranteeing how a Judge will decide the case, nor do they have any control over the credibility or performance of a witness or how their evidence will stand up under cross-examination.
If you ask your litigation lawyer for your chances of success as a percentage, and they come back with 60%, that generally means that they think you have a pretty strong case / position.
- Litigation is expensive
Before you confirm the instruction of your litigation lawyer, you will be provided with a letter of engagement and be made aware of their charging structure. Read this.
If a litigation lawyer is charging you per hour, and you spend three hours on the telephone to them, expect a bill for three hours’ work. That is the service and charging structure which you signed up to.
Often a client may be caught unaware with the offer of a 30-minute free consultation or some other offer to get the instruction started. However, you need to be alive to what you are signing up for or asking your litigation lawyer to do before you tell them to start doing anything.
Also, be aware that litigation costs are seldom ever fully recoverable even if you are successful, or at least cannot be guaranteed to be such. If you do not have a contractual or statutory right to recover your legal fees from the other side, then it is up to the court to decide how much they want to award you (and they can still assess sums demanded under any other prevailing right).
It may be that your litigation lawyer can extricate you from a nasty dispute at a pre-action stage, but it will cost money to do that (either through engaging with your opponent or through an activity like mediation), and whilst you may feel morally vindicated, there may be no opportunity to recover the costs which you have incurred in pursuing or meeting that claim.
Ultimately, litigation lawyers are regulated on the services they provide (by the Legal Ombudsman), held to a code of conduct (by their regulator, the SRA) and have oversight of their conduct of litigation (by the court) – this is the list without going near the Know Your Client obligations, anti-money laundering checks, or accounts’ rules for handling client monies. You are therefore right to expect a certain minimum standard from them.
For me, customer service in litigation primarily comes down to clients understanding what they are getting into or are already in the middle of. If you are instructing a litigation lawyer and you do not understand the document you are reading, the advice being provided, or the question put to you: Ask.
There is no shame in it, and there is no reason to feel embarrassed.
Your litigation lawyer will have spent many years learning and training to reach their level of understanding and you should not feel abashed in seeking clarification.
As for me, I am left in a quandary over whether offering a visitor a cup of tea falls within ‘good customer service’ or simply ‘social etiquette’, but I suppose with COVID it is a moot point for now.
PS: Bishop & Sewell is a great firm and the staff are really friendly and knowledgeable, and they look forward to taking you on your journey!
Charles Jamieson is an experienced solicitor in the Bishop & Sewell Dispute Resolution Department, taking instructions in Landlord & Tenant, Property, Commercial and Chancery disputes. If you would like to speak with Charles, or any member of the dispute resolution team, contact Bishop & Sewell by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
The above is accurate as at 31 March 2021. The information above may be subject to change during these ever-changing times.
The content of this note should not be considered legal advice and each matter should be considered on a case-by-case basis.