The maxim “the customer is always right” does not appear to have gained much currency among solicitors. Each year 20,000 complaints flood in to the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS).
“With that number of complaints, there is something wrong,” surmised former Law Society president Martin Mears, the surprise choice as the head of a new client care initiative. “What we want is to ensure the number of complaints reaching the OSS significantly diminishes.”
Mears says this meant a change in attitude and approach to clients: “The problem our profession has had up to now is we see a complaint as an entirely negative thing.”
So in the next six months Mears and his team will be working on booklets and information packs and considering a lecture tour to advise small and medium-sized firms on dealing with disgruntled clients.
He faces a profession deeply suspicious of its own representative organisation. Many believe that it is simply pandering to public prejudice against lawyers.
But many will also view Mears' new role with a sense of irony: the man appointed to stem the tide of complaints against solicitors was for many years the most vociferous critic of both the Law Society and the then Solicitors Complaints Bureau and what he saw as its gutless campaign to appease public criticism of lawyers.
President Tony Girling dismisses suggestions of unease between them, saying he never fell out with Mears. But he talks at length about the need for a new conciliatory culture at the Law Society.
Mears said that after he lost the presidency in July he was turfed off three sub-committees: “I was fairly put off by this. I hope this appointment is a sign that you can't run the Law Society on 'ins and outs'. I'm delighted to be involved again in something constructive.”
The National Consumer Council's Marlene Winfield is pleased rather than delighted with the appointment. She says the client care initiative is a carrot, but that a large stick is needed for those who ignore upset clients.
Does all this really mean that everything is now sweetness and light? For example, the 3,000 members of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers will not be meeting Mears under the mistletoe after he told The Sunday Times he was unhappy at their litigious behaviour.
And with the OSS already soaking up a third of the Law Society budget, lawyers will want convincing that money spent on teaching them how to mind their p's and q's with the public is worth it.
But Mears seems relaxed about selling the client care programme: “I think it's got to be promoted by someone who will be seen as solicitor-friendly – which I think I am.”