Despite the growing number of barristers offering their services direct to the public there is still a great deal of unease amongst barristers around managing clients directly. It is important to consider how best to offer your services in a way that makes managing the clients easy for you and provides the clients with the service that they want. I have listed some of the key areas which need detailed consideration below and provided some brief guidance for each.
Handling initial enquiries
Invariably your clerks will be at the frontline on dealing with enquiries from members of the public. You don’t however want your clerks to be stuck on the phone to a client whilst they explain in excruciating detail every aspect of their case. You need a way to quickly capture the key details without getting bogged down in the minutiae. A good to way to manage this would be through a questionnaire. This could be an online form so the clients can complete it without needing to directly interact with your clerks or else an electronic document that the clerks could e-mail to clients. Another option is to route direct access calls to an outsourced call centre. Both options then allow you and your clerks to assess the client’s needs and decide if you are likely to want to take them on as a client. That may then mean some form of initial consultation. If you charge for such services it may be worth offering a full refund if at the end of the meeting you tell the client their case is not suitable for Public Access.
Fees and getting paid
Once you have decided if you want the case you have to think about getting paid. You should never undertake any Public Access work without being put in funds. This means you have to tell the client the cost well in advance of the work being done to allow time to pay. Inevitably clients will want to know the fee at first enquiry. It is therefore preferable to have a scale of fixed fees available so that your clerks can quote a fee at the earliest opportunity. If you are charging based on hourly rates or on the basis of an estimate you may be running the risk of holding client funds which is a breach of the Code of Conduct. You can seek to avoid this issue by using the BarCo escrow account, but it is far easier to charge a fixed fee.
With the fee agreed you need to be able to take payment. There are few things more annoying than to find that when you wish to make a purchase there is not the option to pay by card. There are many options available that facilitate the taking of card payments. They can be relatively inexpensive but will provide your clients with an easy way to pay. Some clients will invariably want to pay by bank transfer and it would make sense for your Chambers to have a dedicated account for Public Access payments. Payment by cheque is fine however you must stipulate that if you are to be paid by cheque it must be 7 days in advance of any work being started to allow time for the cheque to clear.
However you manage payments it is important to remember that for the client this is a stress buy. They don’t want to spend their money on this, it’s a necessity. You need to provide absolute clarity on how much they are paying, what they get for their money, that you will not do the work without payment and the various methods of payment you offer.
This is another area where your requirements must be completely unambiguous. If your client has had experience of other lawyers they may expect you to be on the end of a phone whenever they call. If you have a busy court practice staying in touch with clients can only really be done by e-mail. You don’t want your clerks to have to field long tedious calls which are often just a chance for the client to vent his or her anger. Make it clear at the outset that you will only enter into ongoing communication via e-mail. Ideally this should be directed to your clerks who can then monitor if there are any upcoming dates or urgent issues which need to be addressed. Stress to your clients that your clerks are not legally trained and cannot advise on a case, they can only take messages and pass them on. If you have a client who does not want to communicate via e-mail and insists on speaking to you directly then explain that you will have to charge for each call and that the calls will have to be booked through your clerks and paid for in advance.
The Bar Council provides a standard client care letter which is a good starting point. It is however a basic template and it is important to really read that letter and fully understand what it says. Consider whether the letter accurately describes the type of service you are providing. The language which is uses must be clear and concise for the entire range of clients to whom you are likely to provide services. Most people when faced with pages of small print won’t even bother reading it. If all the important information about fees, payment and communication is buried deep within the letter you can’t be certain the client will read and understand it. If you have key information and you want to make sure the client reads it, put it in the covering letter or e-mail preferably in a large or bold font. It is also important to remember to regularly review your client care letter. There are frequent changes to legislation which may make your letter in breach of money laundering or trading standards regulations.
I mentioned earlier that for the client the purchase of a legal service is often a stress buy. It may be that they nod and smile when you explain your advice or the outcome of a hearing but rarely will they fully understand. Invariably they will get home and try to recall what it all meant. In the worst case scenario this may mean that they completely misunderstand what happened or misremember what you have advised. This may well lead to them ultimately making a complaint as the outcome does not match their memory of your advice and explanation. If however you follow up each piece of work with a brief note of what was discussed, what the outcome was and any next actions you will undoubtedly greatly lessen the risk of any later misunderstanding.
Before launching into Public Access it is important to consider your own practice, how that interacts with chambers and probably most importantly what you expect from your clerks. A small focus group with representatives from barristers and clerks is a useful way to plan for the future.
My final piece of advice ought really to come at the very beginning of this piece as it will direct all your other musings. When you approach the thorny issue of how to provide your services to a client, put yourself in their position. If you were seeking to instruct a barrister directly what would you expect? How would you like your initial query to be handled? What level of service would you expect? How would you want to pay and how much? You may find many more factors that you deem worthy of consideration than those I have listed above.
Each of us has different expectations and managing those expectations is a key part of client care. It is impossible to provide a service which fits every type of client but you can design one which suits the majority.
St. Mary’s Chambers
DDI: 0115 943 7180
Phone: 0115 950 3503
Fax: 0115 958 3060