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Lawyer-client relationships can be messy affairs, sometimes ending in court action. But this need not be the case providing both parties learn how to talk to each other.

The golden rule of client care in the legal profession, as elsewhere, is that the customer is always right. Consequently, it is rarely, if ever, appropriate to start correspondence with your client in the following way: “Dear Taffy bastard…” Such was the opening line of a letter by Faversham-based solicitor Edward Newfield (since struck-off).

The relationship between solicitor and client can be tense and fallouts are almost inevitable from time to time. For several years now, consumer groups have attacked the Law Society over its lamentable track record on dealing with complaints. Every year in the region of 16,000 unhappy clients contact Chancery Lane to complain about shoddy service at the hands of lawyers. Not only are clients frequently disappointed by their lawyers, but, it was revealed last year by the Legal Services Complaints Commissioner Zahida Manzoor, some clients were waiting for up to two years to have those complaints even looked at by the Law Society.

The Consumer Association once described the profession’s inability to clean up its act over dealing with disappointed customers as “the greatest threat to self-regulation”. In Manzoor’s latest interim report (November 2005), she was again critical of the Law Society’s handling of complaints and revealed that it was meeting just two of the seven targets set in May last year. Manzoor said a financial penalty may be considered if complaints are not handled appropriately. The risks faced by young lawyers joining the profession, then, are greater than ever. From the beginning of this year, consumers who receive a raw deal from their solicitors have been able to receive compensation of £15,000 – three times what they have received in the past.

Occasionally, bust-ups between solicitor and client even reach the courts. Consider last year’s case of the Central London solicitor David Peter Conway, where the relationship had deteriorated to such an extent that he sued his own client with some fairly disastrous consequences for him. Conway had tried to outbid his own clients in a property deal – he tried to buy a £3.8m site in St John’s Wood in which his own property developer client was interested – and then, for good measure, he sued the client for libel when it complained. While Conway was successful at first instance, he lost his case on appeal. Lord Justice Auld in the Court of Appeal reflected that the original finding last March represented “no advertisement for our system of jury trial” in civil cases. “A Martian, on learning of [the case], would be amazed, as would the ordinary person in the street,” he commented.

Fallouts can also be costly for clients. “A greedy, incompetent and inefficient tosspot” was how one disgruntled client, namely Anthony Hancock, referred to his solicitor Martin Cray, who practises in Brighton. The High Court found for Cray last November and sympathised with what amounted to a two-year campaign of harassment by the client. The solicitor was awarded £9,000 in libel damages over “extremely hurtful and damaging” allegations, plus a further £10,000 for harassment. “I can honestly say I’ve never come across anyone quite like Mr Hancock,” the clearly shaken solicitor was reported to have told the court. “There’s a venom to the way he expresses himself, the way that he acts. I was always aware – and Mr Hancock gave me enough evidence to understand it – that he was capable of almost anything.”

The vast majority of complaints that the Law Society receives relate to poor communication, says Geoff Negus, spokesman for the Law Society’s consumer complaints service. “When your client rings you, do return the call,” he advises. “It might be that you’re in blissful ignorance of a very serious issue if you aren’t returning calls.” He also points out that the client might be trying to lodge complaints about you, in which case you could end up being in breach of Practice Rule 15 on client care. “Sometimes clients show us their phone bills to prove that they’ve called a solicitor 10 times,” he says. “It’s silly things like this that often puts steam into a situation and make things worse.”

As far as Newfield is concerned, it was not the frequency of his communication with clients, but the content that brought him to the Law Society’s attention. In 1999 the solicitor admitted six allegations of “conduct unbefitting a solicitor”, and the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal reviewed a series of abusive letters. “We haven’t the slightest interest in whether your client is funded by little green men from Mars,” he informed one client. He also wrote to the Law Society demanding it be abolished when it had the nerve to query his unique take on client relations.

Bad client relations also encompass those instances where a lawyer loses their professional objectivity and develops a rather unhealthy interest in the client. “Keep your professional and private relationships separate,” counsels Negus.

‘My romance with a jailed wife killer, by a trainee lawyer’, ran the headline in the Daily Mail in 2003. It was hard to know who to feel sorry for when wife killer Robert Marshall complained to his law firm that one of its trainees had taken advantage of him when he was “extremely vulnerable”. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal heard that their love blossomed during 20 visits over 30 months. In the end the female trainee was not struck off and has since joined another firm. “If we had before us a solicitor rather more experienced and of a greater age, we would have taken a different view,” commented the tribunal chairman.