Managing Client Complaints

When you get a complaint what do you think?

  • time consuming,
  • costly,
  • frustrating,
  • annoying, (“I did a great job what is this about”),
  • stress

Complaints can be all of these things and more but what about a learning experience?

Getting a complaint is never a pleasant experience. At Esterase we provide a unique complaints management service for solicitors and so we see many such reactions. However, you have an obligation to deal with any complaint made, so no matter how frivolous you may think it is, time and resources have to be devoted managing it.

There is also the added worry of the client being unhappy with your investigation of the complaint and going to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO). This will involve you in yet more lost time and cost.

Complaints are sometimes thought of as being not as important as fee earning work. This can be a very costly mistake for your firm. Dealing with complaints in a prompt and appropriate manner is critical as there are consequences from not managing it effectively, not least of which is the flat fee of £400 now imposed by LeO for each complaint if they substantiate it! This is in addition to any compensatory award they may impose for ‘poor service’.

Even if LeO were to conclude that you have not provided a poor service, you could still find yourself paying a flat fee of £400 because your complaint procedure is not effective!

It makes sense therefore to have in place a robust, cost effective, complaints procedure that you can rely on.

Review your complaints procedure

Look at your complaint procedure, think of it from a client’s prospective. Is it cumbersome and difficult for the client to understand? If it is you could be criticised by LeO, they do look at how easy your complaint procedure is for the client to navigate. Can you change it to make it simpler?

Review your procedure to ensure it is relevant to the lay client and has few steps as possible to avoid appearing complex.

Make sure you have the resources available to deal with a complaint, what about if your complaint handler is away on holiday, off on long term sick or too busy with fee earning work to devote the time that is required to deal with the complaint in an effective way?

Reviewing a file in order to address a complaint fully is time consuming, taking the fee earner away from doing just that! What other options are there?

Make contingency plans to ensure that you can allocate time to the complaint.

Managing a complaint

Engage the client in the process, don’t just say this is your complaint and this is how I’ve dealt with it. Ask them for comments. Manage their expectations of how long it is going to take. Don’t be afraid to apologise sometimes an apology can go a long way to addressing the issue.

Dealing with every point that a client makes in detail shows you have understood the complaint, more importantly that you have taken the complaint seriously. If it is escalated to LeO it also shows them you are committed to having a complaint procedure that works.

If you identify poor service that has had a detriment to the client address it, apologise and provide an appropriate remedy. Don’t try to justify why the mistake was made as the client will consider you are trying to cover it up.

LeO always ask about costs information when dealing with any complaint, even when the complaint is not about costs. Review your client care letter, is it suitable for purpose? Are all of your staff aware of when to update costs and how to do so?

Learn from a complaint

How then can a complaint be considered as a learning experience?

Reviewing a file can throw up issues that can easily be addressed. For example:

  • is the costs information ‘adequate’?
  • is the fee earner making the same mistake over and over?
  • is there some training need so the same mistakes are not made again, giving rise to more complaints?
  • what changes can be made to make sure complaints don’t arise?

Consider using external complaints management expertise

For some, the use of expert external complaints management support can be a time saving and cost effective solution. With a number of benefits:

  • saves on significant lost fee earning time (and therefore lost revenue)
  • reduces stress and worry for staff and partners
  • is seen by the client seen to provide a more independent review
  • provides added experience in dealing with LeO should the complaint be escalated
  • delivers feedback and advice to help firms learn and problems identified

For many the cost of managing a complaint themselves in lost fee earning, admin resources and so on will far outweigh the cost of using an external expert service, and will deliver poorer results for the firm and the client.

So finally,

If you address a client’s complaint appropriately, even where you have not identified any issues of poor service, that client will see that you have given their complaint the attention it deserves and can walk away from the experience satisfied that they have been taken seriously. In turn they are more likely to recommend your firm to others.

Research has shown that a satisfied client can recommend up to 5 new clients whereas a dissatisfied client can lose the firm up to 23 new clients. Makes you think!

Author: Barbara Spoor
Job Title: Head of Complaints Management

Esterase provides a specialist consultancy improving existing complaints procedures. They also provide fully compliant professional complaints handling service for legal practices. If you would like more information please:

Call: 08455 199 149
or email:


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259 Chiswick High Road,
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