Alison Robinson - Balancing the scales of justice

The Legal Ombudsman's comms chief is keen to position the body midway between law firms and the public, finds Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith.

Go-between: Robinson says the organisation has to be fair and impartial
Go-between: Robinson says the organisation has to be fair and impartial

The words "Legal Ombudsman" are a bit of a challenge,' Alison Robinson, head of the body's comms and policy unit, admits, before chastising herself for being so candid. 'They'll be cringing over the fact I said that,' she says, smiling guiltily.

Robinson, 37, a former lawyer, approaches PRWeek's interview with a light, open manner. She repeatedly folds and unfolds her hands to illustrate individual points - and though born and raised in Sydney, Australia, her accent has been softened by her years spent abroad.

But Robinson's words ring exceptionally true regarding the immediate challenges facing the Legal Ombudsman: to consumers, it is not necessarily clear what the body does. And consumers are half of its audience - the other half are lawyers.

The Legal Ombudsman, an 'access and redress' service based in Birmingham, was set up in October 2010 for consumers, small businesses, charities, trusts and clubs, to settle complaints about their lawyers.

It wants to be seen as 'an alternative to the courts' and can award up to £15,000 in damages, though money is not always on the agenda: 'We've done apologies, bunches of flowers, sometimes it's just about getting people's documents back to them,' she explains - but it is often about the money.

The ombudsman also helps to train lawyers in customer service, encouraging the legal world to think more about clients' overall experience - but it is not a 'consumer champion', she stresses.

Robinson has been at the body from its inception in 2010, and it is thanks to a consumer launch run by her and the comms team that the ombudsman opened its phone lines to 500 enquiries on the first day.

Nyall Farrell, director of administration at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, was COO of the Legal Ombudsman as it was first setting up. He says Robinson was 'hugely personable' and had a 'fantastic way of creating relationships'. 'She is highly focused and adaptable to any situation,' he adds.

Now Robinson has to navigate the body through a tricky second stage: having been around for two years, it is on the 'cusp' between being a new organisation and a 'not quite established' one. She needs to raise awareness of what the ombudsman is, what it does, and to make sure she keeps it 'relevant and meaningful' for both lawyers and consumers.

Surprisingly, this is one of the reasons divorce has featured quite so prominently in the news in the past few weeks: last month the ombudsman released a report showing hidden costs and poor quality legal services can make divorce more distressing.

Unsurprisingly, separation has proved a hot topic. 'This is the time of the year that most people get divorced. It's always after Christmas,' she explains. The report has been covered nationally, with one particular case study helping to make strong headlines, in which a woman was billed £4,000 for photocopying costs alone.

Timing, of course, is crucial. Robinson explains family law is a major area of complaint at the moment, partly due to the recession. The top line from the divorce report - that cost is attributed to around a quarter of complaints made about consumers' bad experiences with lawyers - deftly illustrates the body's overall aim: trying to prevent complaints in the first place through better communication between lawyers and their clients.

But positioning the organisation properly is proving a real balancing act: 'We're not a regulator and we're not a consumer champion: we're in the middle because we have to be fair and impartial,' she says.

Telling people the stories of the ombudsman through the media is a simple but key method in Robinson's comms strategy, and it is not the first time she has done it. Her time abroad from Sydney has not been restricted to the UK - she spent two years with the Australian version of the VSO in Bangladesh, working for both the National Disabled People's Organisation and the Women's Lawyers Association. In both cases, 'the material was all there', and her role was about taking real-life stories and finding ways to make them resonate with the organisations' target audiences.

Back in England, Robinson has an additional set of priorities, which includes communicating strongly with the legal industry itself. She has helped promote new continuous professional development courses for lawyers, which provide ways to help firms improve complaints handling themselves. The courses are accredited by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, 'so hopefully the lawyers will think it's pukka', she adds.

Heading up a comms team of six, and a policy team of two, Robinson is 'unlikely' to employ an external agency. The ombudsman is not funded by the taxpayer but by the legal profession and she is therefore 'mindful' of budgets, to put it delicately. However, working in partnership with legal bodies and having columns in legal trade magazines such as The Law Gazette help to boost awareness within the industry.

Looking ahead, Robinson's teams are becoming increasingly important to plans for handling upcoming changes in the legal landscape. The long-anticipated Jackson reforms, which will address funding to civil litigation, the cuts to legal aid on 1 April, and a new directive from the EU about 'alternative dispute resolution' services such as the ombudsman, could have a huge impact on trends in consumer complaints - and will undoubtedly keep Robinson on her toes for the rest of the year.

CV

2010 Head of policy and comms, Legal Ombudsman

2009 Joined start-up team at Legal Ombudsman

2006 Regulatory affairs manager, Legal Complaints Service (part of the Law Society of England and Wales)

2005 Studied for masters including field research and consultancy work in Bangladesh

2003 Volunteer, Bangladesh Protibandhi Kallyan Somity, via Australian Volunteers International

2001 Policy adviser, Cabinet Office of New South Wales, Australia

2000 Graduate programme, Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Australia

1999 Associate to Judge M Latham, District Court of New South Wales, Australia

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

My first job: I was as an associate for a judge, Megan Latham, after graduating as a lawyer. She encouraged me to think creatively and take some risks. And then being asked to be part of the startup of the Legal Ombudsman; it was huge fun and an incredible learning experience.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I have worked with some inspiring people, and have been fortunate that a few of my bosses have given me huge amounts of their time. Each has taught me something important; Megan Latham deserves a special mention though.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Do something you really enjoy. Value the people you work with. It's fine to take some risks too.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Curiosity, enthusiasm, warmth, tenacity and focus.

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