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Are Unsolicited Approaches by Solicitors Wrong?

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Has touting for PI and PPI claims tarnished the reputation of lawyers?

If you’re not a solicitor you may assume the promotion of legal services is a “free for all” made up of ambulance chasers and commission hunters. Another hungry lawyer out looking for a cut from your misfortune, right? Strangers who call us night and day promising to obtain justice and compensation for our accident and PPI claims are Britain’s most notorious and unwanted nuisance callers.

No-one likes a cold call, especially an automated one, but in the UK we have legal protection; we’ve recently seen a claims management company who made 99.5 million nuisance calls fined £400,000 by the ICO, and the Conservatives have proposed a ban on personal injury cold calling.

Is the regulated legal sector to blame? Our hands are clean: The millions of cold calls are not made on behalf of SRA authorised law firms. Under Rule 7.03 of the Solicitors Code of Conduct law firms in England and Wales are not permitted to directly approach members of the public with whom they have no existing relationship. In plain English, that means no touting for business with strangers on the phone or in person. Online unsolicited approaches however are excluded from this rule.

Could the removal of Rule 7.03 present opportunity or risk for law firms?
Could solicitors cold call?

But the SRA have proposed that rule 7.03 will be removed from the new slimmed down Code of Conduct. Could this result in free for all that will tarnish the reputation of law firms? Will solicitors be asked to make cold calls alongside their fee earning work?

Most of us will be eager not to join the PR disaster zone of legal services cold calling. But the damage has already been done – members of the public and the media do not differentiate between claims management companies, lawyers and solicitors.

The deregulation of approaches to new clients could present opportunity for solicitors and law firms to distinguish themselves from the unregulated sector, and improve public perceptions of regulated legal services.

Politicians, our trusted law makers, are not prevented from organising unsolicited approaches to the public. So why is it foul play if a lawyer approaches a potential client? The proposed removal of Rule 7.03 shows the SRA recognise that unsolicited approaches can be professional and need not be an underhand, pressured or abusive means of obtaining work.

Could unsolicited approaches improve relations with the public?
Are lawyers seen as aloof and unapproachable?

Solicitors may soon be in a better position to address an age-old perception problem of being aloof, expensive and inaccessible. They are not understood or trusted, and are intellectual piranhas; making things worse by highlighting weaknesses and problems. Putting this in statistics:

– 1 in 10 small businesses use a solicitor or barrister for their legal problems

– Fewer than 1 in 10 individuals experiencing a legal need instruct a barrister or solicitor

– 63% of adults believe professional legal advice is too expensive

Restrictions on publicity and marketing prevent solicitors from creating a dialogue and relationship with potential new clients in their communities, and condemn lawyers to be seen as snooty and inaccessible to the public.

This is no small problem – it is one of the top risk issues identified by the SRA, yet the primary means of addressing that issue is currently denied through their own regulations.

What unsolicited approaches by solicitors could work?
Taking to the streets need not be this loud and intrusive

The idea that lawyers take to the streets isn’t such a horrific idea as it may first sound. A stall at a community event or on the High Street raises awareness on what services law firms provide, why we are (on the whole, I hope) a friendly and approachable group of people, and why popping in for an appointment is unlike a visit to the dentist, and may not cost as much as we may think. An approach to the public says; we want to get to know you, we’re not too busy to chat, and we can assist you with your legal needs.

Directly approaching the public is what service industries do; it is a means of engaging with the public, breaking down barriers and promoting a useful service. It need not involve underhand tactics such as telephone calls to strangers, coercion, misleading information, bribery or invasions of privacy.

Is a friendly chat with a stranger an appropriate activity for a lawyer? Could it improve relations with the public and their understanding of regulated legal services? Comments and discussion welcome please.

Main image attribution: Alan Clarke.

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