Posted by Andy Cullwick, head of marketing at Legal Futures Associate First4Lawyers 
“There is yet another new reality coming to the legal services market – transparency. Solicitors will no longer be able to hide behind the difficulty and mystique of the law because regulators will not allow it. Change is coming, and it’s coming soon.”
That was the introduction to our 2016 report For whom the bell tolls – The customer service imperative. Five years on, we are now firmly in the middle of that change.
Measures to impose price and service transparency requirements in certain areas of consumer and business law have been in place since 2018. The legal regulators are figuring out how to develop indicators of quality to help people choose a lawyer. They are also working with review and comparison websites to make them work better in the legal market.
But perhaps the greatest change is simply the fact that the need to sharpen up the way law firms interact with would-be and actual clients is now accepted, however reluctantly by some, as fact.
Our latest white paper, Making your customers happy , takes stock of the progress that law firms have made in developing consumer-friendly cultures.
The driving force
The driving force now, as five years ago, is the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
Research jointly commissioned last year by the Legal Services Board, the CMA and Ministry of Justice revealed that the proportion of providers surveyed which displayed information on prices online increased from 11% in 2017 to 73% in 2020.
Information on price, service and quality “is a necessary starting point for allowing consumers to make the sort of informed choices that drive competition”, the CMA said.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) released a study in October 2020 as part of a five-year project to understand the impact of the transparency rules, and 77% of consumers and small businesses believed the information now being published had proven useful in helping them to make ‘good choices’.
Compare and contrast
There is no getting away from the growing importance of digital comparison tools (DCTs), especially with 42% of respondents to the SRA research saying they would consider posting a review on a comparison site.
ReviewSolicitors reported a 160% increase in the number of consumers using the site following the first lockdown and a further 140% after the second. Some 800 legal services providers have registered with Trustpilot.
In February, the SRA teamed up with CILEX, the Council for Licensed Conveyancers and the Bar Standards Board to launch a six-month pilot, initially with 20 law firms and seven websites, to test how they could best work together to improve the information available to consumers.
By June, more than 70 law firms had signed up, as had a further three DCTs. The SRA said some firms reported that they were now incorporating customer feedback into individual staff performance reviews, adding them to the agenda at senior management meetings and using them as part of their rewards programmes, with positive feedback boosting staff morale.
What we found
We commissioned IRN Research to look at law firms’ approach to customer service.  It found no one clear trend, but the largest percentage (41% of all firms) take the view that it is just as important as resolving a legal matter satisfactorily.
The traditional focus on getting the legal work done, though perfectly understandable and typical of solicitors of all stripes, is dangerous.
Clients may not be able to assess the quality of your legal work, but they can judge the service they receive and, as is now clear, are increasingly happy to write about it online. This means customer service needs to be of equal importance.
Actively wanting to hear from clients, something few seemed interested in not so long ago, is as good a sign of a customer-focused attitude as you can get. You still have to do something with the information, of course – and the best firms ensure it is monitored at board level.
Clients no longer walk down to the high street and through the solicitor’s door – they do it virtually. The wisdom of the crowd is now crucial.