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Don't segregate the rich from the 'poor' in your waiting area

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Don't segregate the rich from the 'poor' in your waiting area

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While some have suggested Russell Conway should split the private and legal aid clients up, the proposition has never seemed attractive

Don't ask me why, but I was sitting in the waiting room at the Cromwell Hospital in London. To call it a waiting room is a bit of an understatement because it is a substantial place in the nature of an atrium with several coffee shops, piles of magazines and newspapers, and rather comfy seating. It reminded me of an airport departure lounge - except in airports you have that wonderful air of escape and excitement. In the Cromwell Hospital, however, there was a sense of grief, worry, concern, and a realisation that a lot of the people here were quite ill and needing urgent treatment.

It got me thinking about solicitors' waiting areas. Recently, some commentators have been talking about lawyers having offices for the rich and separate offices for the 'poor' legal aid clients. Other commentators have been pushing the idea of 'northshoring', i.e. opening an office in the north of England; office space in Manchester can be £15 per square foot, whereas in London it is around £60. Salaries are, apparently, a lot cheaper up north, also.

But back to reception areas. I have quite a nice one, with comfy chairs and a cheerful receptionist.

That's not to say it does not get busy. Sometimes there is quite a bit going on. But there is absolutely no segregation. Lords and ladies sit with Somali refugees, the alleged anti-social tenants sit beside landlords. Employers wanting advice on employees sit happily next to employees bringing claims in the employment tribunal.

While some have said we should split the private and legal aid clients up, the proposition has never seemed attractive.

Often clients have remarked on how enlightened we are that we continue to do legal aid work, despite the fact we are paid a pittance to do so.

Many private clients seem to take pride in the fact that they are instructing a solicitors' firm with a genuine passion for righting wrong and acting for a very mixed bag of clients.

But we should not lose sight
of the fact that a visit to the lawyer is rather like a trip to the dentist. It's scary, the news may be bad, and in some cases there will be a substantial charge for the work done.

However, trips to the lawyer are probably more worrying than trips to the doctor, dentist, or optician. Usually, they happen quite rarely, and often we have clients who have never visited a lawyer before. People just do not know what to expect and the unknown can be terribly frightening.

That's why it's important for the receptionist to be kind, reassuring, and friendly.

We have a box of toys for the children. We also have a policy of not making a client wait more than five minutes. Going to a strange place is problematic, but being forced to wait and worry is cruel and unusual.

Best of all we have Cosmo the Labrador, often seen with his head on a client's lap or licking their hand. He is a huge reassurance and more than anything the Cromwell or Heathrow can provide.

Russell Conway is senior partner at Oliver Fisher @Russboy11 www.oliverfisher.co.uk

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