Engaging clients

Overview

When taking on new clients, you should make sure they have the information they need to make informed decisions about your services.

Many clients are not regular users of solicitors’ services. Often they will be experiencing stressful situations, such as a divorce or moving house. You should always keep in mind the requirement in the SRA Code of Conduct for Solicitors, RELs and RFLs to treat your clients fairly.

You should have procedures to:

  • identify potential conflicts of interest that mean you should not take on the client
  • find out your client’s requirements
  • identify whether your client is vulnerable or needs support to be able to access your services
  • give your client the right information to support them and to meet your legal responsibilities
  • comply with anti-money laundering requirements

You may not act for a client if there is a conflict of interest, or significant risk of a conflict. This is where:

  • your duty to act in the best interests of two or more different clients may conflict – a client conflict, or
  • your own interests and those of a client may conflict – an own interest conflict

For example, you cannot act for both the claimant and the defendant in litigation, as this would be a client conflict. You cannot act for a buyer who is purchasing a property that you own, as this would be an own interest conflict.

There are some exceptions, which are explained in our practice note on conflict of interests.

The SRA Standards and Regulations cover the controls that you must have in place to identify and assess potential conflicts of interest. You should check for any potential conflict before taking on a new client. 

Checking for conflicts

At an early stage, such as before an initial interview, you should ask the client:

  • their name, address and telephone number
  • the area of law they need advice on
  • the name of anyone else involved in the matter, such as an opponent in a civil litigation case, or a spouse in a divorce

If this information shows that there is a conflict of interest then you should not go ahead with an interview.

Turning down clients

You may decide not to take on a prospective client, for example if:

  • you do not have time
  • they are not able to pay
  • their matter is outside your area of expertise
  • there are ethical or regulatory reasons, such as you suspect money laundering
  • you have a conflict of interest

You should give the prospective client a reasonable reason for not taking on the work. It is not legal to refuse to provide a service on the basis of protected characteristics such as age, race or religion and belief.

For information on dealing with complaints from prospective clients see our practice note on handling complaints.

Ceasing to act

Once you have taken on a client, you should not cease to act without good reason and without providing reasonable notice. If you do need to stop acting for a client you should explain the client’s options.

Many practices offer new clients an initial interview to discuss their legal needs, what the practice can offer and the likely costs. This is a good opportunity to understand what your client wants and to agree the terms and conditions for providing your services. Effective communication during this interview reduces the chances of disputes arising later.

For detailed guidance see our practice note on client information requirements.

Before the interview

If you offer initial interviews to clients, you should make clear:

  • who they are for
  • the purpose and what they will cover
  • any charges for the interview

Before the interview you should check for any conflict of interest. If there is a conflict you should not go ahead with the interview.

Charging for initial interviews

You may decide to offer initial interviews free, or at a reduced rate, to attract clients. If you charge for initial interviews you must make this clear to clients.

What to cover in the interview

The client’s objectives

Clients must be able to make informed decisions about what services they need and their options. You should make sure you understand exactly what your client’s objectives are, so that you can explain their options and tailor your services to their needs.

Explaining your role

Many new clients will not have used a solicitor before so they won’t be familiar with the process. You should explain your role and the services you provide, as well as those you do not provide. You should also discuss your responsibilities and your client’s responsibilities.

Your advice

You should discuss and agree with your client:

  • the service you will provide
  • whether the outcomes will justify the risk and cost
  • what will happen - for example, the steps in buying a property or the stages in a personal injuries case
  • any complications that might come up, and the different ways things could progress
  • when they can expect their case to be completed

You should keep a record of your initial advice about risks, so that you can keep your client updated about any changes as the work progresses.

How to communicate with the client

Agree with your client how you will communicate, whether by email, phone call, in person or another method.

You should also tell them, in writing, the name and status of the person dealing with their case and the person with overall responsibility.

Details of your costs

Under the SRA Standards and Regulations, you must give your client the best information possible about the likely overall cost of a matter at the start, and as their matter progresses. This will help your client make an informed decision about whether to proceed.

You must give clear, concise and accurate information about the likely overall costs. This may include:

  • agreeing a fixed fee
  • giving a realistic estimate of the overall cost
  • giving a forecast within a possible range, or
  • explaining why costs cannot be fixed or realistically estimated

You must explain how charges are calculated, and you should provide information at the interview on:

  • hourly rates and an estimate of the time to be charged
  • whether rates are likely to increase
  • expected disbursements and when they will be due
  • potential liability for others' costs
  • VAT

You should explain your billing arrangements and discuss how and when the costs will be paid. Consider whether the client may be able to:

  • apply for legal aid
  • be offered a conditional fee agreement
  • use insurance to cover costs
  • seek payment of costs from someone else, such as an employer

If the matter is contentious, you must explain the circumstances where your client may have to pay other parties’ costs.

Identity checks and money laundering

You can conduct an initial interview before verifying the client’s identity if you are only providing legal advice, and not doing transactional work.

If you take on the client’s case you should verify their identity in line with the anti-money laundering regulations.

More on anti-money laundering and identity verification

After the interview

You should keep a record of your notes from the interview. If you agree to act for the client, you may wish to write to them confirming what you discussed.

Information you must provide

When you engage a new client you must provide information in writing about their right to:

  • complain to your firm
  • complain to the Legal Ombudsman, the time frame for this and how to contact the ombudsman
  • challenge or complain about their bill

See our guidance on handling complaints.

You must also tell clients about:

  • costs
  • how the services you provide are regulated
  • how any separate business that you own or manage is regulated, if you refer or introduce clients to that business

You do not have to provide this information in writing. But if you choose not to, you should consider how you will demonstrate that you provided the information, for example if a client complains.

You must make available the following information, to comply with the Provision of Services Regulations 2009:

  • your contact details
  • your VAT number
  • details of your compulsory professional indemnity insurance
  • how to access the detailed professional rules that apply to you
  • details of complaint and dispute resolution

See our practice note on the Provision of Services Regulations 2009.

Information you should provide

You should agree service levels with your client, such as how often you will update them.

You should explain your responsibilities, such as advising your client of risks, and your client’s responsibilities, such as giving clear instructions and providing documents that are needed.

For detailed guidance on the information you should provide see our practice note on client information requirements.

You should provide your client with a written retainer agreement, setting out:

  • the terms on which you will provide services to the client
  • the work to be done
  • how it will be charged and paid for

Terms of business

It is good practice to set out your terms of business for clients, and to ask your client to sign and date a copy. This would normally include:

  • standards of service clients can expect
  • information on professional indemnity insurance
  • verifying bank account details to protect against fraud
  • data protection issues
  • storage of documents and any cost for this
  • confidentiality and disclosure
  • outsourcing of work
  • auditing and vetting of files
  • any clauses limiting liability
  • processes for terminating the retainer
  • client due diligence you will undertake
  • financial arrangements with clients

Client care letters

You can provide an initial letter to the client, called a client care letter. This is not a requirement but clients may find it helpful to have some information written down, and it can help to avoid complaints or misunderstandings.

For more information see our practice note on client information requirements.

Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013

The Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013 say you must provide certain information to your clients before they enter into a contract. This information is likely to be included in your client care letters and terms of business.

See our practice note on the Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013.