rblog

Client care letters - get off on the right foot

By Debra Malpass on 2 December 2016

Client care letter (CCLs) are usually the first formal communication that a client has with their solicitor. They can set the tone for the rest of the relationship and are a useful reference point for both.

I am sure that over the years we have all seen examples of both good and bad CCLs. Most of the profession understand their importance.

One of the key aspects to drafting helpful CCLs is the role they can play in improving access to legal services. If a CCL does not set out the services a client will receive in a clear way then they might be discouraged from progressing their case or engaging a lawyer if they have future needs. Similarly, if they do not understand their options and likely costs or timescales, they might not instruct their lawyer in the right way.

The frontline legal regulators and the Legal Services Consumer Panel commissioned Optimisa Research to look into how people engage with client care letters (CCLs). The study included group and face-to-face interviews with people who had recently taken, or planned to take, legal advice in England and Wales.

Minimum requirements

The Code of Conduct Chapter 1 on You and Your Client sets out the minimum information that should be included in CCLs, such as telling clients about:

• how their matter will be handled and their options

• the likely overall cost

• how complaints can be made to the firm and the Legal Ombudsman.

We have previously written about the importance of handling complaints well, and providing a good standard of service to all clients is one of our priority risks.

What clients want

The research found that clients wanted personalised, specific information such as:

  • a named contact
  • scope of the agreed work
  • fees and charges
  • likely timescales
  • details of next steps or any actions required.

Ideas for improving CCLs

The research recommended eight key principles to help people to engage with CCLs.

Clear purpose – State the purpose and the importance of reading the CCL upfront.

Concise – Ideally one to two pages. Always use short sentences.

Plain English – Avoid using legal terms or complex language.

Prioritise information – Focus on information most relevant to the client and check it flows logically.

Personalise information – Provide details on the specific case, for example, their estimated costs and not general estimated costs. Remove irrelevant information. Use personal pronouns so it is clear you are talking to the individual.

Easy to read – Use line spacing and a large font size (minimum size 12). Use headings and bullet points 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 clients to pick out key points.

Consider additional opportunities to engage clients – Detailed information about general terms of business and policies could be in a separate leaflet; and extra reminders could be sent later on in the legal process.

These principles are a handy reference tool when writing or reviewing your CCLs. The Legal Ombudsman also has tips on their website about how they view good CCLs and business terms. These can help to avoid service complaints about cost information in particular.

Additional support for some clients

The research found that people with low literacy levels, visual impairments, or English as a second language had more difficulty engaging with CCLs.

You can help your clients by identifying potential issues with reading at the start of the work and then offering suitable support. For example, letters with a larger font size, simpler language or signposting to additional organisations that can help with any concerns or requirements.

Future research

The information given to clients about complaints procedures is very important. One of our research projects for 2017 is about the complaints made to solicitors, otherwise known as 'first tier complaints'. Watch this space for more information next year.

Debra Malpass