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I had a very interesting
conversation with a colleague yesterday around a workshop he was facilitating
for a fairly sizeable group of lawyers. As part of the discussion he asked the
question "how many of you have ever been the subject of a client complaint".
Our subsequent discussion centered
around the fact that the solitary hand that was raised did not seem
representative of the either the statistical probability of the number of
complaints from the group (there was probably well over 150 years of cumulative
PQE in the room) or the amount of unspoken discomfort in the room.
I've written before
about why lawyers find it difficult to admit they are wrong (a training based
on hiding weaknesses in your client's arguments and exploiting your opponents,
and a pathological fear of negligence claims), but the point I want
to explore here is how much harder it is to deal with the consequences of a
mistake, if you can't admit it in the first place.
My starting point is that mistakes
will happen. I don't care how good you are as a lawyer or a law firm, while
legal advice is predominantly a human activity (as opposed to automated or
process based), the human factor remains fallible.
You, me, none of us are perfect.
Now of course you can minimise the
risk of mistakes - quality checks, supervision, training, best practice etc,
but at the moment I've yet to come across any law firm partner that can hand on
heart tell me the firm has not made a single mistake in the past 12 months.
And as work becomes more complex and
has to be done at ever increasing speed, the possibility of mistakes may well
So mistakes are going to happen. The
question is, how are you going to deal with them?
The majority of larger law firms and
corporate legal departments have some type of relationship. Some are more
transactional than others, but I'll make an assumption that the mistake happens
in the context of some type of broader relationship, not least because that's
when both parties are likely to care more about it.
My experience both in law firms and
in-house tells me firms can deal with mistakes really well, or get it
Let's deal with some classic
unhelpful responses ( Twitter
would categorise these law firm #custservfails) first:
Perhaps my favourite example was a
conversation I had with a law firm where I'd had a repeated breach of my
company's outside counsel policy (which explained among other things, who in
the business could instruct external lawyers, and what involvement the legal
department had to have with a matter). After the third clear breach since I
drew the point to their attention, I asked for a meeting with the relationship
partner to get to the bottom of the issue.
I have to admit to being amazed when
the partner turned up with two of his peers from different departments, with a
clear plan to try and turn the meeting into a cross-sell pitch. I was certainly
expecting the "S-word", but it wasn't "sales".
But it's not all doom and gloom.
Several firms I worked with were very good at managing the occasional mishap.
One of the most telling signs was
where the law firms brought a mistake to my attention, particularly as there
was a chance the error might not have got noticed. For example, I've had that
happen when there was no chance at all of me noticing, because the error arose
as a result of a translation from Arabic (where the law firm had arranged the
This builds a huge amount of
confidence, and in every case where that has happened, the firm also presented
an explanation of why the problem arose, and (critically) a plan to make sure
it didn't happen again. Viewed in this light, problems can be an opportunity to
improve the service for the future, and build genuine trust with the
To me, as a client, that open
dialogue is critical.
It works both ways too. Rather than
*** and moan about poor service (which can be more than a simple mistake, as
it involves performance measured against expectations, which in some cases may
not be explicit), I believe it's in both parties' interest for the client to
raise the matter with a law firm, and to do so in a clear and specific manner
which allows the firm to take action.
I've done that in situations where
this has helped the law firm have difficult performance management discussions
with under-performing staff and also improve processes that have benefitted
Now if this sounds like some sort of
rose-tinted utopia, let me be clear - it's not. Not all of these conversations
are easy, ("Difficult
conversations - how to discuss what matters most" is a great read by the
way) and at times can be uncomfortable, but I do believe that putting in the
effort beats the alternative for both parties - a dysfunctional relationship
There are also times where the scale
of the screw up is so monumental, that the relationship simply can't be saved
(for example the reputation damage to the law firm within the client business
is so great that the in-house lawyer would lose the confidence of his or her
clients by using the firm again), but those cases are few and far between.
In most cases, starting an open,
honest and productive dialogue is the best way forward, and saying "sorry"
might be a good place to start.
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