A new law: the client is king

Solicitors must learn to live with the empowered consumer, says Andrew Lockley
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The Independent Online
Of all the professions, the law has always held the cardinal principle of putting its clients' interests first. Long before every other business learnt to be customer-focused, we served our clients in their interests and made our own interests subordinate to theirs. Not for us the spray- on friendliness of receptionists, or the customer satisfaction survey after buying a product or service. We thought that we tended to their real concerns.

We may not have told them how much the work would cost, or kept them informed about what was going on, or welcomed their complaints as an opportunity to improve our service, but we moved them from house to house, helped them pass their property down the generations, and represented them in court.

But while we had our heads down getting on with the job, the clients' expectations changed. They became consumers. And organisations started to draw attention to our weaknesses. Those weaknesses are sufficiently well-documented to be able to influence those who make policy. After all, they also use solicitors from time to time.

The Law Society has tried to tackle this change in clients' expectations by promoting the principle of client care. An extra practice rule was passed in 1990. This has slowly gained acceptance throughout the profession, but a substantial minority of firms still have not implemented this practice rule - one-third of two- to four-partner firms and one-quarter of firms with between five and 10 partners.

Can solicitors reconcile this failure with their duty to put the client's interests first? Surely, they are one and the same thing? And making it clear that they are prepared to meet the client's reasonable expectations - which is all that the practice rule requires - is surely sound business practice. Most clients will not know whether solicitors have got the law and procedure right, but they will notice if they are not kept informed of progress.

This is no passing phase. Empowered consumers are here to stay. They expect to understand what their professional advisers are doing and to receive a cost-effective service. They may be encouraged in this by another development. Some standard terms have been negotiated by bulk purchases of legal services - insurers and trades unions, for example - who may not themselves be clients, but are using their strength as the stakeholders who also pay the bills.

The solicitor is no longer always the stronger party to the contract for professional services. Indeed, the solicitor's position has been weaker in recent years because he or she is operating in a market where there is over-supply.

Empowered clients, and stakeholders who enable them to punch above their weight, make the solicitor-client relationship less one-sided in favour of the solicitors than it was just a couple of decades ago. That period would typically be described as one in which clients were less ready to complain. For some older solicitors, it has been a difficult transition from a period they may now regard as a golden age.

Instead of competing like cut-throats on price, solicitors should compete on client-friendliness. This would be a more realistic policy than expecting the Law Society to recover a past golden age which is, in fact, irrecoverable. The real issue is whether solicitors can deliver the kind of service that exceeds the client's expectations. Can they gain themselves so high a reputation as a profession that there would be a public outcry if a future government tried to introduce measures that had the effect of reducing their role in conveyancing by authorising a larger role for lenders, for example?

Not only has the consumerisation of clients come as a surprise to some law firms, the future may upset their world even further. A recent publication, The Future of Law by Richard Susskind, predicts a gloomy future for solicitors who have not realised that information technology may bypass much of what they currently deliver.

Susskind does not say that solicitors will stop advising clients and advocating on their behalf, just that computer software could easily become the client's primary point of access to legal information, and thus to the law.

If law firms leave the development of such packages to the computer companies, they will miss out on an opportunity to maintain control of their own sector and - here is the real opportunity - to add value to these computer packages.

It is by no means certain that solicitors will remain the gatekeepers of the law. If we cannot become better acquainted with our clients and their specific requirements, and if we cannot harness the power of the computer package to ensure we remain the source of legal advice, then we will not deserve to survive.

The writer is head of professional services at Irwin Mitchell. This article is based on a speech delivered recently to the national conference of the Solicitors Property Group.