Why sorry is the hardest word

14 09 2011

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 centred 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.

Adam readied himself to discuss his drafting mistake with the head of department

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 increase.

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 spectacularly wrong.

Let’s deal with some classic unhelpful responses ( Twitter would categorise these law firm #custservfails) first:

  • Refusing to the acknowledge the problem – “advising around it” – effectively providing remedial advice to sort out the problem before the consequences become significance (“I see your point, we’ll add some additional wording in here, just to clarify that”)
  • Blaming the client - implicitly or explicitly (“well, if they’d given us clearer instructions this never would have happened”)
  • Glossing over the problem (“lucky we caught that in an early draft”).
  • Sorting the problem out without any sign of good grace or contrition (“leave it with us”)

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”.

  • No apology.
  • No self-awareness.
  • No more instructions.

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 translation).

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 relationship.

To me, as a client, that open dialogue is critical.

It works both ways too. Rather than bitch 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 multiple clients.

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 benefits no-one.

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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2 responses

14 09 2011
David Swede

Great post, you’ve hit on a major issue. Personally, i think it’s a combination of being paranoid about liability and arrogance. Not every complaint is justified nor will an apology head off further problems but in many cases it can defuse the issue at lest partially. Burying your head in the sand rarely if ever works.

14 09 2011
Intelligent Challenge

Thanks David – I’d missed the “head in the sand” response, but wholeheartedly agree it’s definitely not a winner!

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