Lawyers with bedside manners
Laws are of no use if they don’t protect you when you need them. That’s what often happens with South Africa’s sophisticated labour law. Individuals are either unaware of their rights, or in desperation they go looking for a qualified labour lawyer to ensure they are not abused. But this usually comes at a prohibitive cost.
Legal & Tax, founded in 1997, offers the man and woman in the street affordable access to legal (and tax) advice and expenses insurance. It’s based on much the same principle as medical aid cover, but at a fraction of the cost.
CEO Benjy Porter reports a 20% increase in demand at Legal & Tax‘s call centre since the beginning of this year. Many of the callers are members looking for legal advice concerning unfair labour practices, including retrenchments.
As businesses downsize and retrenchments increase, companies often fail to comply with the labour laws. Either they are ignorant, or they use their position of power to hoodwink retrenched employees out of a fair settlement. They calculate that there is little chance that staff will know their rights under the labour law, and even less chance of them having the money to hire a lawyer.
Here’s an example from Legal & Tax’s files:
A woman had been working at a large corporate for a number of years. Because of her excellent record, she was promoted to head of another department. During the promotion process, a background check revealed a criminal record way back in her past. When she was first employed, a declaration concerning her past record had not been requested, and she had been fully rehabilitated. But as a result of the fresh investigation, pending her promotion, she was unlawfully fired. The matter was resolved through the advice of a Legal & Tax lawyer and she was reinstated.
“But it’s not only about getting legal advice,” says Porter. “We have found that if a lawyer is not engaging emotionally with the client, he’ll feel disconnected and will disregard the advice and be worse off. Losing one’s job is highly traumatic. It causes panic, desperation and anger. A sympathetic voice on the other side of the line can make the difference between a successful outcome and the client putting down the phone out of sheer frustration.”
Porter points out that many lawyers have poor “soft” skills. “They believe that as long as they dispense accurate legal advice, they are fulfilling their role. However, all our lawyers are encouraged both to be experts in the law and adept at dealing with clients who are in a time of crisis, in a sensitive and sympathetic manner.”
But it doesn’t stop there, says Porter. “Legal advice is not always palatable. Sometimes clients may not have a case; or when undergoing debt counselling, they might not take kindly to being told to reduce their spending drastically. On the other hand, an unlawful dismissal matter may take far longer to settle than expected, putting the person out of pocket.
“So in dealing with the client holistically and acknowledging that litigation is highly stressful, we are conscious that our attitude can greatly affect the client. As a party to a dispute, he or she is often emotionally vulnerable, and an understanding lawyer can greatly improve the experience. The client, too, should be free to articulate the emotional component of the conflict. We encourage that.”
It’s not just the lawyers that have to be sensitive and competent. Companies with call centres should be aware of the affect that a brash and unhelpful operator can have on a caller, not to mention the damage it can do to the image of that company, says Porter. “After all, a call centre is the shop window and should convey the corporate culture the moment the call is answered. A professional operator should have the skills to reassure the caller that his or her problem is going to be handled efficiently. This can only be achieved by a continuing commitment to skills development and training, even in difficult times.”
Legal & Tax now services over 60 000 families throughout the country. For an affordable premium of between R60 and R125 a month, it provides legal and tax cover, as well as advice in both fields. For more information phone 0860 587 587.