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.

 

 

Back to the SOLICITORS group News

Media Centre

“The Solicitors Group online directory is an established and respected channel for legal professionals, meaning I can talk to my existing and future customers about products and services both quickly and easily.”

Carole Hatton
Marketing Manager
Landmark Information Group

“Reaching our niche market can sometimes be challenging, however we find promoting our legal training courses on www.thesolicitorsgroup.co.uk an excellent way of contacting both existing and new customers. The service we receive from The Solicitors Group is both professional and relevant to our core activities and we would recommend their services to others.”

Euromoney

“I must say that to date we have been very pleased with the referrals we are getting from your site.”

Paul West
Orchid Cellmark

“The Newsdesk feature on www.thesolicitorsgroup.co.uk is ideal for us. Its prominent location on the site provides a great platform to communicate key messages to existing and potential clients.”

Neil Phillips
Marketing Manager
Countrywide Legal Indemnities

"We are very happy with the referrals we are getting from The Solicitors Group web-site."

C.A. Bishop
Technical Director
Wickham Laboratories Ltd

“We received 419 click-throughs to our site from advertising with www.thesolicitorsgroup.co.uk”

Legal Prospects

“Putting myself in my potential client's shoes, I consider www.thesolicitorsgroup.co.uk to offer perhaps the clearest and most user-friendly listing of expert witnesses, especially in its choice of index terms.”

Ivan Vince
ASK Consultants

“The banner ad looks great”

Samantha Dawson
Director
The Bundle Business Limited

“The Solicitors Group has been fantastic in helping us to raise awareness about bowel cancer, which kills 16,000 people every year in the UK. Bowel Cancer UK aims to save lives by raising awareness of bowel cancer, campaigning for best treatment and care and providing practical support and advice. Without the support of organisations such as the Solicitors Group we would be unable to carry out this vital work. We are very grateful to the team at the Solicitors Group for their support and assistance.”

Tamara Matthews
Legacy Officer
Bowel Cancer UK

“As a result of Law London, we have registered 208 new companies/firms to the website, generating £20,797 GWP to date, as well as reinforcing our presence in this very profitable marketplace.”

Aviva

“The event was well put together and executed, and the traffic of potential customers for us was high. We had a number of enquiries regarding our services after the event and we feel our attendance there was important to our overall brand exposure. We feel a Law event of this size without Euromoney Legal Training present could potentially be hurtful to us as a business. We would recommend you to attend and shall ourselves be there again in 2008.”

Euromoney

“Many thanks for the prompt service.”

Martin Gibbs MBE
Director / Investigator
Griffin Forensics Ltd

“A targeted email to key customers is an invaluable method of communication, endorse this with the Solicitors Group branding, relevant editorial content and you have created a winning combination! We look forward to reading the next edition.”

Carole Hatton
Marketing Manager
Landmark Information Group

“Talking directly to Property Lawyers is critical to us as they are key customers or potentially could be for all of our products, The Solicitors Group offer a perfect solution to get our messages right to the right people”

Carole Hatton
Marketing Manager
Landmark Information Group

“Thank you for having a useful and informative site, it is good to see a comprehensive and friendly portal.”

Stefan Fann
UK Probate Services

“Cadogans aims to keep its brand image in front of lawyers who may be looking for engineering experts. A check on Google analytics showed that referrals to our website from The Solicitors Group website were above average.”

Daphne Wassermann
Technical Director
Cadogans