How well do you know your client?

How will the future clients of the computer age seek legal help?

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

I don’t know how many law firms chart the ‘journey’ that leads clients to seeking their advice, but I would guess that it is very, very few. Magically, or perhaps because of an advert in the Yellow Pages, or maybe the recommendation of a one-time client, clients turn up on the doorstep wanting help. What more do you need to know? In any case, it is probably because of your brilliant local reputation.

Well, if you are willing to look a little deeper, the Legal Services Board this week produced a wealth of information that could help you develop your practice in a benchmarking report on the individual consumer’s use of legal services. The research coming out of the LSB and the Legal Services Consumer Panel has been one of the benefits of the new regulatory set-up; at last somebody is taking responsibility for generating a research base for the regulatory decisions that are taken, even if the research programme and sometimes the individual pieces of research themselves have their critics.

Anyway, the report covers each element of the journey individual consumers take, from first identifying that they have a legal need, to the action they take to address this need, ending with the legal services used. The story I wrote tried to capture some of the main themes as I saw them, but this was a 204-page publication and there is something for everyone in it.

Though many of the findings accord with other surveys, none that I can recall has had such a big sample or gone into this much detail. There are interesting lessons in there, about ‘legal needs’ – a broadly defined term – and how in relation to more than half of them people do not seek help (to the extent that they do at all) from a lawyer. Is this what the experts mean when they talk about unmet legal need? Or should lawyers just accept that there are certain matters for which they are not needed/not appropriate for? Consumer issues are one of the main causes of legal need, and while a faulty kettle, say, may represent a legal need for the report’s purposes, who would think of engaging a lawyer to deal with it?

But there are other ways of looking at this. I talked the findings over yesterday with Crispin Passmore, the LSB’s strategy director, who pointed to providers who already supply pro forma letters of complaint for £2.50 or £5. That might be worth spending to get your money back on a £30 kettle. In line with Professor Richard Susskind’s theories, Mr Passmore predicted that “we’re at the beginning of a long-term set of changes” that will move lawyers away from being solely providers of bespoke advice.

Another important message from the research of which solicitors should really take heed is the demographics of their client base – older people from higher social classes. As Mr Passmore said, will the young consumer of today, who looks for help online and is more willing to try alternative providers, revert to the more traditional approach favoured by their parents as they get older? Or will these habits stick with them, meaning law firms have to do things differently to attract their attention?

The Internet era surely means that stark generational shifts in buying behaviour are on the cards – they have already begun to happen to high street retailers, so why not high street law firms too? Without going into the old argument about legal services not being the same as buying a tin of beans, I’m not sure the distinction will be so sharp in future.

There are lessons for the LSB itself. While I focus on what this research means for lawyers – as the main constituency of this website – for the LSB it may well be that it needs to concentrate more time on how to improve support for the many people who choose to resolve their legal needs themselves.

The LSB has admitted previously that it has not spent as much time on the regulatory objective of “increasing public understanding of the citizen’s rights and duties” as perhaps it should have done – “We’ve tended to rely on the liberalising market,” conceded Mr Passmore – and other research it published recently found real enthusiasm among consumers for the idea of an ‘official’ online resource to help them resolve their legal issues.

The idea of an NHS Direct for the law is certainly gaining currency, while Mr Passmore notes that there was a noticeable jump in the number of people handling probate themselves around the time the Probate Service radically improved its website. There is no direct evidence to link these two developments, but some kind of connection is certainly possible.

Another interesting issue thrown up by the research is our old friend reserved legal activities. Only around 20% of legal needs fall into the reserved activities and the fact that you can meet 80% of people’s legal problems without being a law firm has consequences for the way the market develops. The LSB is currently at the start of the process of investigating whether to make the provision of ‘general legal advice’ a regulated activity; Mr Passmore said that while the research does not indicate any great consumer crisis as a result of so many unregulated providers operating in the market, “that doesn’t mean you couldn’t make competition more effective through regulation”, for example by making consumers more confident in using such providers.

So there is much to ponder. The research has good news for the profession in the findings of satisfaction with the service they provide, although this is, of course, in the context of consumers not being able to judge the quality of legal advice. But the lesson perhaps is that the idea of ‘know your client’ should not be limited to your money laundering checks.

You can find the full LSB report, along with the detailed survey data, here.



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