Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures
To borrow a cliché, how do you solve a problem like Solicitors from Hell (SfH)? The Law Society has chosen to get heavy, co-ordinating a group action on behalf of law firms named on the site in a bid to have it closed down, having previously pressed the police to take action over the former policy of offering solicitors the option of paying to have their listings removed, which it argued was tantamount to extortion.
In return, on Friday SfH’s founder, Rick Kordowski, began a slander action against Law Society chief executive Des Hudson. I don’t suppose this would have happened had the society not have taken such an aggressive attitude towards SfH.
The rights and wrongs of SfH are well aired: on one side we have a forum that dissatisfied members of the public seem keen to embrace and share their experiences, implying (perhaps) that the current system of complaints handling is simply not meeting client needs; on the other we have solicitors vilified anonymously, hampered by client confidentiality in responding, and having to resort to libel actions to clear their names. Freedom of speech and public accountability against the right to a fair ‘trial’.
Consumer reviews are still the wild west of the Internet; last week the Advertising Standards Authority announced an investigation that will require TripAdvisor to prove that the reviews on its site are true and fair.
I receive enough correspondence myself from those who believe they are victims of a conspiracy by the legal establishment to know that some people will never trust the law or those who work in it (perhaps I’m missing some great stories, but I prefer to think the world doesn’t generally work like that).
There are, of course, proper channels to pursue a grievance – backed up by the undoubtedly independent Legal Ombudsman – and clearly some of the complaints on SfH are unjustified and, I suspect, sometimes more a reflection of the outcome of the matter than the conduct or competence of the solicitor involved, or come from other, darker motives. Saying that, Mr Kordowski has sought to tighten up the operation of the site in recent times.
Equally there seems little doubt that the service of some solicitors leaves a lot to be desired and that the routes of redress do not satisfy all complainants.
But the question is whether the Law Society has got its tactics right here. Would it be better off simply ignoring SfH? Is it just inviting greater publicity for the site (which it is certainly receiving)? Does it look like a bully trying to censor free (even if irresponsible) speech? And even if it succeeds in shutting down SfH, will the society go through the same process with the copycat sites that will surely pop up in its wake?
It is undoubtedly stuck between a rock and a hard place – some in the profession would want to see Chancery Lane actively defending its members’ reputation (and, as I have written before, the society is in a very serious battle to prove to solicitors that it truly is their representative body); but others would see this as a waste of the profession’s money and just giving SfH unnecessary publicity.
One practitioner wrote in the Gazette last week that the profession should put in place a proper forum that allows clients to leave their feedback, good and bad. It behoves lawyers to be more accountable, she argued. Maybe, but I certainly wouldn’t expect the Law Society to do that.
I can understand why the Law Society is acting as it is but it has taken a long time to get to this stage. If it was going to take this kind of action, I think it should have done so earlier, before the site gained the traction it now has. I wonder what efforts at mediation took place – I know from experience of dealing with solicitors angry about some story or other that, quite unsurprisingly, they are all too quick to turn to a legal solution.
Ultimately, even if it wins this particular battle, surely the war is unwinnable. It will take a far bigger beast than the Law Society to tame the Internet.