Complaints cannot always be avoided. Nevertheless there are things lawyers can do to help maintain a positive relationship with their client.
The Commissioner has prepared a fact sheet titled Working with your client (265KB PDF) which notes the most common causes for complaints against lawyers. A series of other fact sheets dealing with common issues in complaints can also be found on the Fact Sheets page.
What to do if a client approaches you with a complaint
Under the Legal Profession Uniform Law, where a consumer dispute arises between a lawyer and their client, the parties need to make a reasonable effort to resolve the dispute before approaching our office. We therefore encourage you to be open to resolving the concern before it becomes a complaint to our office. This will save you a great deal of time and is a better option for strengthening the relationship with the client.
- Try to manage any defensive reaction you feel. It is inevitable that clients will be unhappy about your service from time to time. It may be that they don’t understand the legal process, they are stressed, or they are under a misconception as to what should be happening.
- Use the complaint as an opportunity to understand what your client is concerned about and expects from you, and identify ways of improving your service.
- Before reacting, listen and confirm what it is that your client is complaining about. Don’t respond in substance immediately, particularly if you are upset, but give your client a time frame during which you will look into the matter and get back to them.
- Find out what your client wants as a resolution; if you are prepared to offer something different, let them know.
- Communicate clearly about the issues, using neutral language.
- Give your client information about making a complaint to our office if the matter cannot be resolved.
- Discuss how to deal with complaints with other members of your firm. For example, you may agree with your partner that each of you should deal with complaints about the other.
- If you are a sole practitioner, join your local law association and find out what others do, and if you are able to help each other.
What to do if a complaint is made about you
If a complaint is made about you, it is important that you:
- Make reasonable efforts to resolve the issues of concern raised by the complainant, where possible
- follow any instructions or requests from the Commissioner within the set timeframe
- provide relevant information that may help the Commissioner understand the complaint
- avoid any actions that may cause further conflict between you and the complainant
- contact the Commissioner if you do not understand what is being asked of you
- contact the Commissioner if you require more time to respond.
Build a strong relationship with your client
A proven way to avoid having complaints made against you is to build a strong and positive relationship with your clients. This is best done through clear and regular communication, providing clarity around billing and managing their expectations by ensuring the clients understand what you can and cannot do for them. Give regular progress reports and discuss what options are available, particularly if anything changes in the course of the matter.
Take care to scope and cost the matter as accurately as possible
One of the greatest causes of client dissatisfaction is a final bill that exceeds the initial estimate. This is particularly common where the client has not been warned of the possibility that the estimate may change from the beginning of the matter. Taking the time to think through the likely steps in the matter, how long each stage may take, possible complications and required disbursements will help you to come up with a more accurate estimate. Giving clients a good idea of the likely costs will enable them to decide whether they want to spend that money or to take another option.
Complaints toolkit for small businesses
The Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals Australia (SOCAP) and the Australian Centre for Justice Innovation at Monash University have developed a complaints handling toolkit for small businesses. The toolkit provides a practical guide for complaint handling within small businesses and includes tips, tools and resources to help you deal with complaints. For further information visit the SOCAP website.
Further information on complaints
More information about the types of complaints made about lawyers can be found in the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner’s annual reports. A summary complaint statistics is also available.