David Buchanan-Cook: Complaints can increase the stress that caused them in the first place

Christmas is often an ­unintended bearer of stress. It's that time of year when otherwise innocuous factors can ­collide and accumulate to ­create a ­situation which many of us find ­difficult to endure.

David Buchanan-Cook is Head of Strategic Insight at the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission
David Buchanan-Cook is Head of Strategic Insight at the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission

The “accepted” ­festive activities of present selecting and buying, the general media-enforced seasonal ­jollity, and the prospect of the ­protracted proximity of relatives with whom we may or may not get along, can be stressful enough.

For lawyers, that can be coupled with accentuated pressures to meet client expectations over the festive period. There’s also that unspoken professional responsibility to “clear the decks” before the holidays. Sometimes this can result in the proverbial straw which breaks the camel’s back.

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At the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC), we often see stress – whether professional or ­personal, or indeed both, as one tends to feed off the other – as the root cause of complaints against members of the legal profession.

It’s in times of unaccustomed stress that otherwise meticulous lawyers can find themselves in trouble. They forget to return client telephone calls, fail to attend pre-arranged meetings, defy otherwise acknowledged logic and agree to courses of action which in the cold light of day they would consider ill-advised, or miss critically important court-imposed deadlines.

Where things then go awry for the client (who will often be experiencing some form of stress in their own life) complaints can arise. This causes a double whammy for the solicitor where the stress of ­having a complaint can exacerbate that ­pre-existing and underlying stressful predicament.

As part of my role, I am privileged to be able to speak to, and more importantly listen to, members of the legal profession across Scotland. One theme which frequently recurs is the huge adverse personal impact a ­complaint can create.

Under the current process, the most serious conduct complaints can take up to three years to be determined. It’s perfectly understandable, therefore, how that “threat” of potential strike-off, the potential that your career could be taken away from you, can seriously affect the mental and physical wellbeing of a legal practitioner.

It’s not impossible to imagine how the stress imposed by this can cause emotional distractions which can lead to additional oversights which, in themselves, can lead to further complaints. Certainly, the impact of complaints upon those complained about is not to be underestimated. A recent discussion paper by ­Carolyn Hirst and Chris Gill (from Queen Margaret and Glasgow universities respectively) explores that impact and the ways in which this should be addressed.

From the SLCC’s perspective, this is something which we will be ­factoring in to the best practice advice which we provide to the legal profession in terms of complaint handling.

There is, I think, an easily-forgotten duty of care on the part of law firms to support those against whom ­complaints have been made – particularly where those complaints strike at the professional and/or ethical standing of the person concerned. It can feel an isolated, and at times abandoned, position to be in. Luckily for the legal profession there is an excellent ­charity called LawCare which provides free and anonymous support. The Law Society of Scotland also provides support through its wellbeing initiative. I would strongly urge anyone in the ­profession who personally feels the adverse impact of stress, whether complaint-related or not, to get in touch with these organisations for support.

David Buchanan-Cook is head of strategic insight at the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission.