Client Care Letters post-November 2019

Solicitors will not have escaped the fact that the new regulatory arrangements to be imposed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) are coming into force on 25 November. This is only a matter of weeks and firms should, if they have not already done so, make moves to ensure their procedures comply with the new Standards and Regulations.

Senior management need not fear they will be left in the dark by the regulator as they work to ensure compliance: the SRA has begun publishing various pieces of guidance on the new arrangements. A good place to start is where a new matter begins: the client care letter (or solicitors’ engagement letter, client terms of engagement or retainer letter – take your pick).

In July, the SRA published guidance on client care letters which is effective immediately (ie under the existing SRA Handbook as well as the new arrangements). Its purpose is to assist solicitors in reviewing their client care letter to ensure their clients understand and remember the information in it.

A client care letter is not, in and of itself, mandatory. The obligation is on firms to give certain information about their costs and services to clients at the point of engagement and, if necessary, during the case or transaction.

Client care letters are notoriously (some would say necessarily) long and prove tedious for most if not all clients. They are lengthy to ensure all required information is set out for the client – otherwise the firm may be breaching its obligation – but many firms are still guilty of using unnecessarily complex language and legalese.

Does every client read the entirety of the client care letter? It’s highly unlikely, particularly if the client is not a business client. Does it matter? Maybe not if you’re the solicitor, because you’ve performed your part in complying with your regulatory requirement to send certain information to your new client. But imparting that information to clients in a user-friendly way should be just as important.

Put yourself in your client’s position: is a complex three-page client care letter the best start to your solicitor/client relationship? Not really – particularly if the client is vulnerable or for whom English is not their first language.

There are practical steps firms can take if they have not already done so. For instance, the SRA’s vulnerability report highlights an immigration firm which is ensuring “important information such as costs, legal processes, procedures and client care letters are translated into a client's first language where needed”.

What’s new?

So how is the SRA addressing the issue of client care letters? Firms’ obligations to provide minimum costs and services information has not changed but the SRA is not impressed with the general pitch of them. It says many client care letters can be:

  • Complicated, with legalistic language, terms and phrasing
  • Too lengthy, with dense paragraphs and small font sizes, which makes finding key information difficult for clients
  • Focused on generic information, such as terms and conditions, rather than specifics relevant to that client
  • Unclear as to the purpose of the client care letter and any action that the client needs to take.

This means some clients will not understand or retain all the information in the letter. This, states the SRA guidance, can be heightened for individuals with low literacy levels, visual impairments, in a state of emotional distress or for whom English is a second language.

Do solicitors need this help? The SRA’s view is they do.

It should not be difficult for solicitors to ensure their client care letter is easy to understand. One of the most common complaints made to the Legal Ombudsman relates to a lack of clarity around costs. This is also a statutory requirement: law firms must give their clients certain specified pre-contract information under the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 require including the best possible information about the overall cost of the matter and any likely disbursements.

So it is wise to review your existing forms of client care letter in light of this guidance and consider whether you need make improvements. The SRA sets out a useful checklist which solicitors will find useful:

Do you explain what is going to happen?

If you answered no, include a clear explanation of the agreed work, next steps and confirmation of what is and isn't included in this work.

Do you include how much the work is going to cost?

If you answered no, include a concise and easy to understand cost breakdown and explanation of any potential additional costs.

Do you explain when things are going to happen?

If you answered no, include clear information on the likely timescales for the agreed work.

Do you explain what the client needs to do?

If you answered no, include a clear explanation of the actions required from the client and where they can get further information if they need it.

Do you include contact details?

If you answered no, include details of a named contact and how to get in touch if they have further queries.

Does your letter show a clear purpose?

If you answered no, state the purpose of the letter and think about how you can use headings to explain sections or key information.

Is your letter concise?

If you answered no, improve your letter by:

  • Breaking information down into bite-size chunks by avoiding lengthy paragraphs and headings
  • Using a short, to the point sentence structure
  • Clearly focusing on the information most relevant to that specific client and matter. Generic information, for example, terms of business and cancellation rights don't always need to be included in your letter and it may be easier to enclose these separately. You may also consider using links if emailing or providing information on your website that can be easily accessed.

Do you use plain English?

If you answered no, avoid legal terms and complex language.

Do you prioritise information?

If you answered no, structure the letter to focus on the information which is most relevant to your client.

Do you personalise information?

If you answered no, improve your letter by:

  • adding detail regarding the client's case
  • tailoring your information to the client's case
  • using personal pronouns
  • removing irrelevant information.

Is your client care letter easy to read?

If you answered no, you can improve your letter by:

  • using a large and clear font size
  • avoiding dense paragraphs
  • separating out key information, for example, into tables or numbered steps.

Do you highlight key information?

If you answered no, improve your letter by using:

  • bold type for key points and summary boxes
  • headers, or other visual tools, such as process diagrams or tables, to emphasise key sections or important points.

Have you considered the needs of vulnerable clients?

If you answered no, consider whether you need to tailor the content for vulnerable clients. For example, you could:

  • use a bigger font
  • adapt the information into braille, audio or easy read format
  • offer the opportunity to discuss the content by telephone.

Source: SRA Ethics guidance on Client Care Letters

With this renewed focus on the clients’ needs, solicitors’ client care letters of the future should be significantly more user-friendly.



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