Returning to face-to-face work with clients: keeping safe in challenging situations

Juliet Oliver and Polly Sweeney discuss some of the risks involved when returning to physical ways of working with clients – some of whom may have mental health issues. They offer practical guidance on what your firm can do to keep your people safe.

Woman speaking

Solicitors have a vital role to play in supporting vulnerable people to engage with the law.

The Law Society's guidance on meeting the needs of vulnerable clients is an excellent resource to help you provide effective, tailored support to people who have additional needs.

However, this role can also be challenging and, at times, present risks to our physical and mental health.

The impact of COVID-19

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has seen a move to more remote communications with clients. As a result, many solicitors may feel nervous about returning to physical ways of working.

Reactions to face-to-face contact may be unpredictable from clients or individuals that we live with, particularly those who have been detained during the lockdown period.

Many people will have experienced a devastating impact on their mental health during the pandemic.

In some situations, there may be misunderstandings about why solicitors have been unable to visit physically during the lockdown.

Returning to physical client meetings could be especially challenging for new solicitors who have been unable to get experience engaging with clients face-to-face. As such, appropriate support and supervision will be important.

Weighing up your obligations to clients (particularly if they are vulnerable) and the risk to yours and your employees’ health and safety, will also be key.

It may not always be possible to meet client expectations; for example, if they want a face-to-face meeting when this is not safe or appropriate in the circumstances.

Real-life experiences with clients

Here are some real examples of challenging situations experienced by solicitors where a prior risk assessment may have helped:

The SRA position

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) recommends the following:

“As we continue to emerge from lockdown restrictions, it’s a good time for solicitors to reflect on things that may have worked well through digital-led client interactions.

“As physical meetings and communications with clients start to become more viable again, this can also be helpful in terms of thinking about opportunities to stay safe during interactions with difficult or unpredictable clients.

“It’s important for solicitors to consider their own safety and wellbeing, as well as the needs of the client.

“A risk assessment can help you to work through the options and identify in advance any risks that may be posed when you are due to start engaging with a client – and assess how best to ensure that you are able both to remain safe and to provide an appropriate service which takes into account your clients’ attributes, needs and circumstances.”

Tips for improving your firm’s risk assessment

Below are some practical suggestions to consider when reviewing your firm’s risk assessments and policies as part of returning to physical ways of working.

  • Ensure there is a firm-wide risk assessment policy that all solicitors are aware of, including identifying ways to raise concerns
  • Ensure your people understand how to escalate concerns when necessary, both in a detention facility during a visit, and internally via your firm
  • Encourage your employees to ask relevant individuals (such as nursing staff) about risk issues relating to being with a client alone in a room
  • Ensure they are aware of their entitlements when encountering situations with potential risk, such as:
    • being provided with a personal safety alarm
    • a room with a window or see-through door, or
    • a member of staff remaining within a reasonable distance (but out of earshot) in case of any problems
  • Encourage your staff to identify and secure exit routes and safety procedures when meeting with a client in a confined space, such as sitting close to the door and checking that the safety alarm works before entering the space
  • Encourage employees to discuss situations they are unsure about with a colleague to objectively identify the level of risk of harm
  • Where there is a known risk, encourage them to identify trigger factors which increase the risk of harm and seek to implement measures to reduce the triggers
  • Ensure that, where possible, employees do not attend situations alone which involve known or anticipated risk, particularly if they are inexperienced:
    • this could also include travelling to or from situations likely to incur risk
    • if this isn’t possible, establish a buddy system, where solicitors keep relevant colleagues updated about their anticipated finish times for meetings, calling them if the meeting is longer
  • Having a ‘safe word’ policy for employees if they need to subtly raise an alarm for professional assistance, for example, “Hello, can I speak to Zac?”
  • Ensuring that solicitors feel empowered to leave any situations where they feel their safety is at risk
  • Keeping and regularly reviewing a record of previous situations where risk has occurred
  • Ensuring that all solicitors are aware of and engage with LawCare, an independent charity offering emotional support, information and training to the UK legal community

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

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