A young solicitor decided to work in the probate operation of the Co-operative’s Legal Services business (“CLS”) at Aztec West in Bristol, because of the firm’s ethical values.
As senior figures in the firm and the wider co-operative movement have totally ignored his concerns when raised with them in private, he feels that it is worth airing them on the website. He writes:
“I know there are many employees and ex-employees who feel the same as me but are afraid to speak publicly about it for fear of reprisals from CLS. One has to stand up to people who treat others like this or it will continue.”
Part 1 – 2009
CLS are very keen to promote the Co-op’s values to both their staff and their clients, but their behaviour towards these groups is at the polar opposite of these values. staff were overloaded with work to a degree that was dangerous to health although we were told in inductions that we could always say if the workload was too much, when I protested about being given more work I was told that I had no choice; I had to take it on, even though this meant me producing a substandard service to the rest of their clients due to the sheer numbers involved. I became completely inundated with work.
There was very poor IT support (based in Manchester!) and when systems crashed (a regular occurrence) we were accused of using IT failure as an excuse for poor performance.
Cold-calling the vulnerable
CLS telephone people who have booked a funeral through the Co-operative offering free legal advice, but this is actually a fact finding exercise to see if probate services are required. If they are, members of the sales team are targeted on how many probate jobs they can secure.
I spent some time making these calls in my first week there, and confirm that quite a few people are most unreceptive to being called in this way, and were not expecting the call.
I struggled with the ethics of this, especially against the backdrop of the Co-op. Concerns have been raised about this by other solicitors in the Law Society’s Gazette, because as solicitors we are not allowed to cold call for work under the Solicitors Regulation Authority rules. However, CLS is not regulated by the SRA and so can operate on what is certainly not a level playing field. In fact, I am not sure just who regulates CLS and how they are allowed to operate as a solicitors’ practice outside the SRA framework, but that is another issue.
The second point of impact on the Co-op name is the fact that once they have signed up for the probate service, their matters are fed into a large call-centre type process, where solicitors and unqualified staff have up to 120 cases to deal with. While I was working there, many clients were unhappy with the level of service they were getting; due to the volumes of work their cases would simply grind to a halt. The situation was that I could only progress matters where clients were complaining about the delays. This level of service is clearly not good for the brand.
The Managing Director’s favourite line was “If you don’t like it you know where the door is” and I left as soon as possible. I reported these problems to the Co-op Group after I left, but they simply referred the matter back to CLS for investigation, and in due course confirmed to me that everyone else was satisfied with management and that I just did not fit in.
This is not true: I worked in a room full of people who hated coming to work every day, but who dared not complain due to fears over job security in a wavering economic climate.
CLS is being run as a commercial enterprise and not a co-operative
CLS is one example of a Co-op group business that is not practising what it preaches. It is clearly being run very much as a purely commercial enterprise and not as a Co-operative, although to the outsider it gives every appearance of being an ethical choice for legal services provision.
In my opinion, this makes CLS less ethical than the largest commercial law firms, because at least they are not pretending to be something they are not.
Part 2 – July 2010
These matters are aired in an employment tribunal
For some time I have been involved as a witness in an employment tribunal case for unfair dismissal for a solicitor friend of mine who was sacked from Co-op Legal at Christmas.
My witness statement from the proceedings details the appalling working practices and contempt for their staff, which I know is having a knock-on effect on the work being done for clients.
The points about workload and working conditions, made in open court, were not refuted
My point is that this statement is one of four similar statements which have now been entered in the Court record and have therefore become public information. I, and two other solicitors, swore under oath in the tribunal that these were true statements. In cross-examination, in open Court, the points about workload and working conditions received no real challenge.
Two important questions:
1. Is the Co-op group aware that this level of mismanagement is going on in a Group business?
2. If so, are they content that this is proper, and are they happy for this sort of information to be in the public domain?
He ends: “I have tried writing directly to the chief executive’s office in Manchester but my letters been intercepted by the Co-operative Legal Services – somehow!”