By Legal Futures’ Associates Access Legal 
Law firms are facing a number of challenges arising out of the Covid-19 pandemic, including their ability to attract new clients and deal effectively with existing clients who are not 100% happy with the service they have received, for example, delays in obtaining searches in property transactions.
Some of these issues were identified in the recently published report from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) , which focused on how consumer access to legal services and solicitor competency could be improved and maintained; the report’s recommendations and how they should be implemented will clearly have an impact on law firms and regulatory bodies going forward.
We saw our Access All Areas  event as an ideal opportunity to gather key decision-makers from leading regulatory and consumer bodies onto a panel so our current and potential clients could listen to their thoughts on the CMA report and question them on various regulatory issues they had.
The panel consisted of:
- Brian Rogers , Regulatory Director, Access Legal (Chair)
- Chris Handford, Director of Regulatory Policy, Solicitors Regulation Authority  (SRA)
- Paul McFadden, Chief Ombudsman, Legal Ombudsman  (LeO)
- Sarah Chambers, Chair, Legal Services Consumer Panel  (LSCP)
- Chris Nichols, Director Regulation Policy, Legal Services Board  (LSB)
With such an esteemed panel we wanted to ask a number of questions that would assist those watching in planning for what may be expected of them in the future; to get a full insight into what the panel’s thoughts were on each question, and those raised by the audience, register here so you can gain access to the recording .
1. The recent Competition and Markets Authority report into legal services made a number of recommendations in relation to competency and transparency; please could you give us a brief insight into the work your organisation will be doing over the next 12-18 months to address these recommendations?
2. What do you believe the new competency checks for solicitors will achieve that the current competency requirements don’t?
3. There have been talks of law firms having a mandatory presence on comparison and review websites; but what can be done so consumers are still encouraged to leave (honest) feedback in the light of the recent incident of a law firm that received £25,000 compensation for a defamatory review posted on Trustpilot by a dissatisfied former consumer who paid £200 for the advice?
4. What more should law firms be doing to ensure that they and their staff are improving the services they provide to clients from different ethnic communities, given that the evidence shows that there is still a “troubling inequality” between BAME (Global Majority) and White British consumers in the way they access legal services?
Due to technical issues with Sarah’s connection, she could not fully participate in the session as planned, so we thought it only right to let her have her say in this blog on the questions she missed.
Questions 2 and 3
The initial education and training of lawyers cannot be expected to offer a career-long guarantee of competence, especially as there is so much change during the span of a career, not just in laws and regulations, but also in the way that business is done, the use of technology and the way we communicate with each other, and the expectations of different communities.
So, some ongoing assessment is essential if we are to offer clients the assurance they expect. Such checks should be both pro-active (but not too frequent) and reactive (when there is evidence of a specific problem). Checks should involve some independent review or spot checks, not just self-assessment, or assessment within the firm.
The trend for Continuing Professional Development (CPD) arrangements to become more outcomes-focused should be continued and should be accompanied (but not replaced) by a more rigorous and accepting approach to consumer feedback. Complaint data should be used not as a punishment but as an opportunity to learn and to improve the way in which solicitors and other legal providers deal with their clients. Engagement with a client who has complained, to see what the solicitor/firm could have done differently, or could now do to improve the customer’s experience, is always preferable to a knee-jerk defence of why the client is “mistaken”. It is good for the business as well as for the client.
Good comparison websites always give providers the opportunity to rebut bad reviews, and this process provides a great opportunity for firms to demonstrate how seriously they take the views and experiences of their customers. Bearing in mind that over 80% of clients rely on family and friends to identify a legal service provider, which may well not be the most suitable for their particular needs, it is vital that we give consumers a simple but reliable way to identify and compare providers of the particular service they want. Informed choices improve effective competition and drive-up quality, and here again this means better business for providers who provide good quality services and value for money.
Equality and diversity in the legal sector is generally looked at through the prism of the profession, and there has been some (very welcome) progress in recent years in increasing the proportion of ethnic minority solicitors entering the profession. But they still represent a small fraction of the total number within the profession, and an even smaller fraction of those in the more prominent positions. This under-representation is reflected in the disparity of experience of legal services by the people receiving those services. This has not improved in the five years since the first report published by the LSCP, and the recommendations we made then have still not been implemented by the regulators or representative bodies or taken as seriously as they should have been by individual providers.
So once again we are calling for much more detailed research and engagement to discover why it is that ethnic minority users have a worse experience than their White British counterparts, why they trust their lawyers less, and what they want to see lawyers doing differently. Ethnic minority consumers are often more disposed to shop around, but they come up against barriers in terms of an absence of clear or comparable information both on price and on quality of service. So, our general plea to accelerate the introduction of full transparency is particularly important if providers wish to make changes in the interest of these communities. Current pilot projects to introduce quality indicators in conveyancing and employment law are to be applauded, but we need to see these extend into other areas such as family law where consumers in vulnerable circumstances frequently experience particular problems in securing access to justice at a cost they can afford.
The spread of more fixed fee arrangements, and of “unbundled” services, where consumers carry out some of the work themselves while leaving the solicitor to do the work which requires more technical expertise, would be welcome here. And one particular issue which regulators and representative bodies should address is how to raise awareness, particularly in Black African and Pakistani communities, about the importance of preparing a will (only 10% of Black African individuals currently have a will in place, compared with nearly 50% of White British).
We hope you find the recording of the panel session useful and are able to use what the panellists have said to assist your law firm in remaining successful in the future.
You can stay up to date with the latest compliance matters by joining Access Legal’s free 30-minute monthly compliance webinar . Or get in touch to speak to an Access Legal consultant .