The clients' commentary

A forthcoming book reveals that despite generally positive feedback from consumers about employment law practitioners, many City and national firms have left clients with a feeling of dissatisfaction. Mark Brandon reports

A number of stark lessons for employment practices came out of the client research undertaken for the Insider's Guide to Legal Services: Employment, not least that practices carried away by their own marketing, over-trading or complacency will get found out and lose instructions as a result.

In fact, personnel/HR directors, who formed the bulk of the qualitative response base, were highly vocal about their choice of lawyers, and highly critical when they came across things that they did not like.

The City firms, with the notable (although not exclusive) exceptions of Baker & McKenzie and Simmons & Simmons, were heavily criticised by many. Linklaters & Alliance in particular, although highly praised for its employee benefits practice, was attacked by frustrated users.

One client had a bad experience with a compromise agreement and ended up dissatisfied. “I did not rate its advice and I did not think that it fully understood the details,” he said. “I feel [Linklaters] did not look at the agreement and just gave its version.” Another client said that while the service was “all very competent”, it was “not quite solutions-focused” and that he had to “go through three levels of commercial lawyers to get to the employment lawyers”.

Freshfields was criticised for lack of proactivity and poor speed of response. “I would wait ages for a reply, then it would quote the law at us, rather than our options and the risks,” said one client.

Clifford Chance also suffered on the solutions front. “It was not on the ball, not the service I expected from a City firm,” said one client. “I expect recommendations and suggestions about what to do. It gave me options and told me to choose.” A Lovells client said that the firm was “very legalistic – it knew its stuff, but not with a practical or common-sense approach”.

At this point, the national firms should be rubbing their hands with glee, as this supports their argument that because they combine top-end City practices with bread and butter regional practices capable of handling volume tribunal work, they are better placed to provide what the client wants. However, they are not immune from criticism.

Amid generally positive comments on Eversheds, for instance, one client said: “You don't get the homogeneity you get from some firms, you just don't get the consistency across regional offices.”

Another client said that they chose Eversheds because it was a national firm, but they were disappointed with its service because “it does like to work in its little enclaves”. The client said that although the firm seemed quite “resistant to change initially”, it had improved.

Another client had used Hammond Suddards outside London for a small piece of work on costs grounds, but ended up returning to the City firm that he had used previously because he was “disappointed” by the poor quality of Hammonds' work.

However, it is worth noting that the bulk of commentary was positive, in some cases highly positive, and it is worth singling out a number of lawyers for particular mention. The clients' choice favourite was David Whincup of Hammond Suddards' London office (now Hammond Suddards Edge). Whincup, variously described by clients as the “Doug Ross” (from television programme ER) and “Blackadder” of employment law, is roundly praised, in particular for his committed, interesting approach to training. Whincup's square mile practice is unique in its quality and depth, and users were more effusive about him than any other individual lawyer.

A number of lawyers were also commended for their excellent feedback. They were Russell Brimelow of Boodle Hatfield (“an extension of our department and company”), David Dalgarno of McDermott Will & Emery (“very approachable, very knowledgeable, very practical”), Shona Newmark of Baker & McKenzie (“has a very sharp mind – she really gives you a clear route through”), Tim Russell of Norton Rose (“we would not have considered Norton Rose if it were not for Tim Russell. He drives the quality of the service”), David Smellie of Farrer & Co (“phenomenal – he has enormous charm and can put his finger on an issue and sort it out in a way that's easily understandable to non-lawyers”), Owen Warnock of Eversheds in East Anglia (“very intelligent, very easy to talk to, loads of common sense”) and Charles Wynn-Evans of Titmuss Sainer Dechert (“a thorough knowledge of the law and is able to find solutions in a practical and common sense way for the client”).