Client-care letters (CCLs) are often not as effective as they should be in making sure that clients understand the work that is being carried out on their behalf or in outlining what is required of them, according to research co-commissioned by the Costs Lawyer Standards Board (CLSB).
The research was commissioned jointly by all of the frontline legal regulators, together with the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP), and identified eight principles to help legal services providers better communicate with their clients (see end of article).
The individual regulators will take account of these principles and the more detailed findings from the research to inform their work with the professionals they regulate.
Specifically on costs, the qualitative study, conducted by Optimisa Research, said consumers understood that it might sometimes be difficult to provide accurate estimates, especially for more complicated cases such as divorce.
“However, consumers assumed that the legal services provider would have worked on multiple similar cases and as such should be able to provide an accurate estimate based on their previous experience and expertise. The provision of accurate, personalised estimates was also believed to demonstrate that the legal services provider had listened to the consumer and fully understood the specifics of the case.”
CLSB chief executive Lynn Plumbley (pictured) said: “The CLSB is currently working through the outcome of this piece of work to evaluate any required change to its guidance note on client-care letters.”
Consumer panel chair Elisabeth Davies said: “Client-care letters are mostly ineffective at conveying the information consumers prioritise, such as information on cost, timescales and basic client-relation contact details. Worryingly, the research also shows that client-care letters do not meet the needs of vulnerable consumers.
“There is an urgent need for approved regulators to rise to the challenge of supporting providers to deliver improved communication to consumers. We will continue to work with approved regulators on this agenda. The findings of this research must now inform a well-considered and targeted approach to addressing the communication needs of consumers, vulnerable consumers included.”
The Optimisa report said it followed “growing recognition that the language used by legal services providers and the methods of communication used are a major barrier to individuals understanding and engaging with legal services. Within this study, we found that communications offered the most tangible example of an uneven relationship between legal services providers and their consumers.”
Examples of this included providers being demanding in setting clear deadlines for consumers to provide information, “and yet often proving to be non-committal in setting deadlines for themselves and/or failing to meet their own deadlines”, as well as “using unfamiliar and complex language that was sometimes construed as an attempt to put the legal services provider on a pedestal”.
At times, communications were also thought to reinforce a perceived lack of empathy in the industry. Optimisa added: “That said, perceptions of legal services providers were not always negative, and again communications played a key role in determining higher satisfaction levels.”
The research identified a “disconnect” between the information provided and/or prioritised in CCLs and information that consumers were interested in. Consumers were looking for information that was personalised to their specific case – confirmation of a named contact, scope of the agreed work, fees and charges, likely timescales, details of next steps/any actions that were required – but this was often hidden, if provided at all.
Instead, lawyers included more generic information, such as terms of business, that was perceived to be less pertinent at that point in time. It was suggested that alternative means of conveying regulatory information, like complaints procedures, might be more effective in a separate leaflet that consumers could be signposted to.
Indeed, prioritising complaints information was seen by some consumers as indicating that the legal services provider was not confident and expected problems.
The eight key principles to improve client-care letters
Show a clear purpose
Provide the purpose of the letter and the importance of reading it, upfront.
Keep it concise
Recognise that the ideal length is one to two pages. If this is not feasible, use short sentences, bullet points and headings to break the information up.
Put it in plain English
Avoid using legal terms, archaic or complex language. Minimise the use of vague and/or heavily caveated sentences.
Focus on the information which is perceived to be most relevant to the consumer and ensure a logical flow.
Provide details on the consumer’s specific case, for example their estimated costs and not general estimated costs. Tailor the letter so that irrelevant information is excluded. Use personal pronouns so it is clear you are talking to the individual.
Make it easy to read
Use line spacing and a large font size (minimum size 12). Use headings to make the letter easy to navigate and avoid dense paragraphs.
Highlight key information
Use visual tools such as bold text, headers, summary boxes, tables or diagrams, to make it easier for consumers to pick out key points.
Consider additional opportunities to engage clients
While there should be a clear reference to the complaints procedure in the client-care letters, consider whether more detailed coverage is better delivered in separate leaflets; or whether reminders could be sent later on in the legal process, to ensure that this information was understood.
This post was posted in ACL e-Bulletin