Trust me, I’m a lawyer

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

Trust: only 47% of people trusted lawyers to tell the truth

We all know the line about damned lies and statistics, and there has been no shortage of the latter as Legal Services Act survey after Legal Services Act survey is published. Certainly the statistics reported today by the Legal Services Consumer Panel can be interpreted in various ways.

Overall, 80% of people were satisfied with the legal service they received. Is that good? It sounds OK to me for a service industry which can, by its nature, produce disgruntled clients who fail to distinguish between an unfavourable result and the quality of service they received.

Or is it bad news that one in five people (quite a lot when you say it like that) either were dissatisfied or shrugged their shoulders and went ‘Meh’ at the question? What we don’t know is what all these people expected from a lawyer in the first place. If their expectations were low – which is likely in some cases, at least – then meeting them should not have been too hard, but that’s surely not a level of service to which the profession should aspire.

The question of whether the public trust lawyers is a troubling one. The consumer panel has majored on this aspect of the report and it doesn’t make great reading that fewer than half of those surveyed would generally trust lawyers to tell the truth, even if they scored better than accountants. Though ‘only’ 20% would generally not trust them to tell the truth, the indifference of the remaining 33% is not much better.

This is clearly relevant with so-called trusted brands poised to enter the legal market later this year – although we supposedly trusted the banks, and that ended up with them selling millions of people payment protection insurance they didn’t need, so perhaps what we really mean is that people gravitate towards the comforting familiarity of brands.

But it depends to some degree on consumers’ buying habits changing – consistent with every other piece of research on this issue, recommendation and referral remain the main ways in which people find lawyers, in which case trust is less of an issue. But if more people start using the Internet to find lawyers (only 8% of those surveyed did) and more than 19% of people shop around, then issues like trust and reputation (the most important factor when choosing a provider for those surveyed) will come ever more to the fore.

As with most surveys, the results threw up some inconsistencies. The next most important factor was that the lawyer was a specialist in the field, but equally most consumers are not using quality marks as a way to determine this. So presumably they are trusting what the lawyer is telling them about their expertise.

There was one worryingly consistent theme among the various results, however. This was that satisfaction and trust levels were lower among non-white respondents and those from lower social grades. This is dangerous territory, especially for the kind of generalisation I’m about to make, but it perhaps suggests that solicitors – broadly speaking a white, middle class bunch of people – are providing their services in a manner best suited to other white, middle class people.

Amid the blizzard of surveys that the Legal Services Act is generating, that is one finding that should give everyone real pause for thought.


    Readers Comments

  • filemot says:

    isn’t it a little optimistic to expect * solicitor* to be the trusted brand. Once upon a time, it might have been, but now we looked at real brands – specific sources of origin rather than collective titles like *soilicitor* for trust. Even so, with limited local goodwill and advertising, there are not many solicitors brands that do have any reputation good or bad with the general public . That is why Quality Solicitors have stepped in to try and create a trusted brand. The question is whether they have motivated them members to go the extra mile or whether they are just advertising and no substance.

  • Louise Restell says:

    Very helpful analysis and useful to remember that you can read statistics in many ways. I agree that the last point is possibly the most damaging and I am struggling to see what the profession is doing about it, or the government for that matter (but then can we expect it to do anything useful given the less-than-sensitive approach they are taking to legal aid cuts?.. sorry, had to get that one in)

    The point you make about brands is also informative – it’s not necessarily about trust, but about familiarity and knowing what to expect (even if it is a case of better the devil you know). Which goes back to the blog Richard Moorhead wrote yesterday about the Dutch ‘DIY’ legal aid. Consumers need information about what to expect when using legal services and, in fact, when they need to use a legal expert and when there are other means of solving their problem.

    It seems to me that proper investment in public legal education would go some way to achieving the government’s aim of cost cutting and empowering people to take responsibility. It would also help consumers know how to shop around and choose a service that’s right for them in terms of delivery, expertise and cost. I am sure a by-product would also be increased satisfaction levels with legal services and trust in the profession.

  • admin says:

    filemot – it depends on your definition of ‘brand’. Solicitors still have a strong brand in that most people know that if they have a legal problem, they need to see a solicitor. I bet most ABSs will be marketing hard on the fact that they employ qualified lawyers.

    Louise – as ever, you are right. Public legal education is one of those issues that sounds a bit dull but is actually critical. I don’t hold out much hope though.


  • jezhop says:

    I agree with Neil that the Solicitor brand is a trusted one, in that it is trusted in terms of professional expertise. Where the trust breaks down is in the delivery of the service and in failing to make the client feel genuinely valued, particularly in scenarios where they are unlikely to be a long-term source of business for the firm.

    Fixing this requires a strong client-service mentality to be embedded in the culture of the firm, which as we know is difficult to achieve across the divides that exist within traditional law firm structures. New business structures – with expertise from other service industries and more wieldly management structures – will of course be another matter and might well end up providng a very productive kick up the backside for many firms.

  • I’m not sure how much I worry about the difference in trust across different demographic sub-groups. I don’t think this survey will control for problem type. The groups with lower levels of trust will have come into contact with the family and criminal justice systems more and the nor sedate world of conveyancing and wills. Therefore they may have trust issues which are as much to do with the adversarial justice system and, in particular, the police. In other words, it may have nothing to do with the lawyers.

    Overall low levels of trust compared to other professions is interesting and worrying but then again the public conception of adversarial justice (getting people off) may be hard to shift and defined by popular cultural representations of lawyers rather than actual experiences. Nevertheless the profession may need to emphasise it’s public interest ethic more strongly than its client interest ethic.

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