Shock and awe

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

The QualitySolicitors shopping centre branch: legal services as consumers can understand them?

Today’s research into public attitudes towards complaints publication, commissioned jointly by the Legal Ombudsman and Legal Services Consumer Panel, makes for interesting reading. Not so much because of their support for publication, which was not a huge shock, but for some of the other findings that came out of the focus groups.

First was how consumers found solicitors. Word-of-mouth recommendation remained very important, unsurprisingly, and even where other methods were used, a recommendation was useful in endorsing the choice. Other factors that could influence consumers’ choice of solicitor included price, tone of voice/response when the consumer first made contact (how many firms make that point to their staff, I wonder?), proximity and area of expertise (the researchers were surprised to find “quite widespread awareness” that solicitors specialised in different fields).

Though a minority found no-win-no-fee solicitors through advertising, the media and the Internet, the researchers found that for most consumers in the groups, the idea of locating/appointment a solicitor via the Internet “seemed a bridge too far”.

They explained: “There was some feeling that because the relationship with a solicitor was very personal, it was important to meet face to face before finally appointing them. However, there were signs, especially amongst the younger age group, of the Internet being used to generate a shortlist.”

The finding that clients hold solicitors with a degree of respect “bordering on awe” has certainly amused some on Twitter today but there is a serious point about the relationship between lawyer and client. The report said: “As respected professionals, solicitors had a position alongside doctors as people who were trusted to behave properly and do what is right and in their clients’ best interests. They were seen as highly educated, well informed and knowledgeable about the mysteries of the law and clever with words.

“Because for most ordinary people the world of law was unfamiliar and seemingly complicated they felt they had to trust their solicitor to do what was right for them and to give them best advice, in much the same way that patients have to trust doctors to give them the best advice and treatment.”

This meant that when things went wrong in the solicitor-client relationship, clients could all too easily feel that their trust had been betrayed and they had been let down and their interests had not been looked after. The once trusted solicitor became an ordinary mortal who was “money minded”, “talked down to you”, sought to “bamboozle you with words”, and solicitors in general were seen as a “law unto themselves” who used language and terminology that many struggled with.

There were some indications that in part this had happened because the client had not fully grasped or taken on board the advice given and/or the circumstances of their case, while they were often in a fraught state when seeking advice.

This spills into the reluctance consumers had to complain about their solicitor. The idea of doing so “prompted varying degrees of anxiety and fear, especially amongst the less educated/sophisticated who felt that they would be on a hiding to nothing”. Even among those recruited to the study as being very dissatisfied with their solicitor, only a few had taken their grievance beyond grumbling and complaining to their solicitor or the senior partner.

The good news for high street solicitors from this research is that the public values the personal service they offer. What they do is respected, but clients can quickly turn if things go wrong.

The bad news is that unless solicitors make themselves more approachable, there are real opportunities for more consumer-focused competition. It is too easy to think of the coming ABS storm as websites or big retailers with paralegal warehouses in industrial estates, but even if the Co-op, Virgin, Tesco or whoever does not establish a high street presence, solicitors have always proven perfectly good at eating each other’s dinner.

Birmingham firm Blakemores, for example, is careful to staff its Lawyers2you shopping centre stands with non-lawyers; the QualitySolicitors shopping centre store puts the legal services buying experience into a context with which consumers are far more comfortable. Frankly it’s not that hard to come up with a list of ways to improve the client/consumer experience at the traditional law firm (not closing at lunchtime is a favourite of mine).

The fundamental problem here is a disconnect between what solicitors think their clients know/think/understand, and what they actually know/think/understand. Just look at the way lawyers write, a particular bugbear of mine – far too many write as though they are corresponding with another lawyer, rather than their client.

I recall sitting in on the Legal Complaint Service’s helpline a few years ago. A distressed woman called up over a civil case she was involved in. She wasn’t very coherent or, it seemed, that well educated, and the caseworker tried really hard to understand exactly what the problem was. “Are you the claimant or the defendant?” he asked. “What’s that?” she replied. And this case had been going on for five years.

Lawyers and consumers – two nations divided by a common language.

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