Trust is a losing game
As legal regulators lament the public's lack of faith in lawyers, John van der Luit-Drummond asks how the profession can win the trust of the people
The words, scrawled across the back of the divorce petition in red ink, read: 'How do you sleep at night, you blood-sucking parasite? Is your bed feathered with the money from broken marriages?'
Every solicitor will be able to share their own examples of contempt shown to them from members of the public. Whether the disdain comes from a client or, as in the example above - their ex-spouse, lawyers are far from universally loved, respected, or trusted.
While not at its historical lowest, the level of public trust in lawyers, as evidenced by the Legal Services Consumer Panel's Tracker Survey, is depressing. Measured annually over a five-year period, the survey shows that though faith in the profession increased in 2015, only 47 per cent of respondents trust lawyers to tell the truth.
A lack of trust in the legal profession has also helped contribute to a rise in litigants in person, at least according to a new survey from the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB). With 86 per cent of adults apprehensive at the thought of representing themselves in court, solicitors and barristers could feel confident that their services would be needed and valued. Yet respondents to the CAB survey cite a mistrust of lawyers as a reason to risk their own mental health in going to court without representation.
If that was not enough evidence of a lack of faith in the profession, then why not take a gander at a new report from the Bar Standards Board on cross-cultural communication. The report found that the complex language and mannerisms used by barristers can adversely affect clients and witnesses, and erode faith in the legal process, forcing some into the arms of providers who share their cultural background, whether or not they have the necessary expertise.
How can practitioners address this unwarranted suspicion of the profession? Well, according to the Legal Service Board, a regulatory 'trust mark' will convince consumers that a legal business is 'trustworthy, reliable, and operates to endorsed standards'. Simples.
The super regulator's latest 27-page tome - well worth a read if you enjoy the kind of jargon the report itself argues you should avoid - found that a lack of trust and a failure to cater for the vulnerable is restricting access to the legal services market.
Reports and research we have plenty of, but viable answers seem in short supply. Ditching legal jargon and doing more for the vulnerable may be good PR for a firm, but will it stop the consumer quoting Shakespeare's famous line from Henry VI, or asking what you should call 5,000 dead lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?
There are no quick fixes and I fail to see how another logo - to go with the Law Society's and other bodies' quality marks - will raise confidence in the profession. Trust is easy to lose and hard to win back. The vast majority of practitioners deserve the trust and respect of the public. Answers on a postcard as to how we win it back? Did we ever have it in the first place?
One solicitor in particular, however, deserves a special mention this week. Last week's issue of SJ bid a fond farewell to the publication's first editor at large, Kevin Poulter. Though reluctant to blow his own trumpet in his final foreword, it would be remiss of the SJ team not to highlight his achievements over the last two years.
Kevin has been an invaluable asset in furthering the reach of the SJ brand, engaging new readers, and being a font of specialist advice when needed. Perhaps above all, he has been a fantastic colleague. This should not be seen as a eulogy, however, as Kevin’s musing will once again be gracing the pages of this journal in the near future, albeit in a different guise to what you may be used to. Thank you KP, from all at SJ.