Taming the Wild West of legal comparison websites


Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

How the west was won: will voluntary standards work?

Among the many trials of being a managing partner in a smaller practice nowadays must be phone calls from new web services promising a stream of hot leads from willing clients. All you need to do is part with a measly few hundred quid for some kind of listing and then sit back while the work rolls in.

The reality is, of course, somewhat different in some cases. For one thing I am getting more than a little sceptical of many of these businesses (and various others targeting the legal market) putting most of their eggs in the SEO basket and promising a high ranking on Google – there are after all only 10 slots on that mystical first page (and experts even say you’re better off at the top or bottom of that, rather than the middle) and an awful lot of people fighting for them.

While in principle there is nothing wrong with firms marketing themselves through such sites, the question is, do they work?

The first question is how prominent they are. I undertook an entirely unscientific piece of research and searched on Google for a solicitor in the area where I live. The first two 'natural' results, to my slight surprise, were actually for the two law firms down on the high street and the next for a company secretarial business in the vicinity.

Almost all of the directory results on the first page were for general services such as Yell and Thomson Local. Only one legal-specific site (www.solicitorlocal.co.uk) came up on page one, which I found to be of limited value because it listed names, addresses and phone numbers, and nothing more.

There are more informative services out there. In broad terms in addition to directories there are price comparison websites (eg, Wigster), referral sites (eg, TakeLegalAdvice) and feedback sites (eg, icomparesolicitors). Some qualify their leads (eg, Contact Law), but most do not. All, one way or another, are funded by the firms that advertise their wares on them.

Some have reputable companies behind them – LexisNexis has LawyerLocator, and Thomson Reuters owns Contact Law – and quite a few are run by solicitors trying to help other solicitors. While there are clearly some good ones out there operating to high standards, I can't help but suspect that there are a handful of operators who have mainly seen an opportunity to make a quick bit of cash. The Marketlaw report on comparison sites last year showed there is a fair turnover of these business.

In essence these sites are promising to take away the hassle of me having to call half a dozen firms from the Yellow Pages by doing much of the work for me. That's useful.

But this has become the legal world’s Wild West, as proven by some of the findings of this week’s Legal Services Consumer Panel report on comparison websites. The panel is doing law firms and consumers alike a big favour by trying to press good standards on those involved, although I suspect that achieving success will not be easy across the whole industry.

If voluntary standards do not work, the panel suggests that the Legal Services Board might consider an accreditation scheme. It strikes me as more straightforward to beef up professional conduct rules so as to put the onus on law firms to ensure that those sites they sign up to meet certain standards in a similar way to how the referral rules work (which they should be doing already, of course).

But putting this to one side, a key question posed by the panel's research is what exactly are the lawyers up to? It shows that there is a fair chance that nothing will come of a consumer's enquiry. Why do firms bother listing themselves if they are not going to pick up the leads that come their way?

The panel acknowledged that its mystery shopping exercise had significant limitations which made the results illustrative rather than definitive, but “they nevertheless offer useful insight”.

That they do, and it goes back to a more fundamental issue of law firms not really knowing how to convert leads into work. You can spend all the money you want on marketing your firm, but if you close at lunchtime when many potential clients may have a few minutes to call, then you are unlikely to see great results.

The managing partner of a QualitySolicitors firm told me an interesting story recently of attending a QS sales training session, during which his firm was called up live with an inquiry in front of all the other delegates. His confidence that it would be dealt with well soon crumbled. But there is some consolation in knowing that most managing partners would have the same experience.

If I call a law firm to enquire how much a will would cost, for example, what most firms do is have the receptionist read out the prices and put the phone down. What experts like Ian Cooper explain is that (in very basic terms) you need to put the call through to a fee-earner who should get to know the caller and their circumstances before giving them an idea of price, and then try and convert them into an instruction.

There is now a recognition among a minority of firms that they need to understand and indeed practise sales (not that lawyers ever like to use the word). The larger businesses, such as as Lawyers2you/Blakemores, have gone further and decided not to let lawyers near the public at first, using non-lawyers to staff their shopping centre stands and their call centre (or listening centre, as boss Guy Barnett prefers to call it). It is open late and at weekends. QualitySolicitors is also going down the call centre route.

This is no coincidence. Those with experience of other industries are amazed at the primitive level of sales in the legal profession. I can’t help but think that if law firms spent half as much time converting their leads as they do in trying to get them in the first place, many would be much better off than they are today.

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