Webley: partnership of mutual benefit

Legal academics had teamed up with an online directory of lawyers in an attempt to develop internet software that will harness research findings on how people choose a lawyer in order to match consumers with the right lawyer.

The web directory, AccessSolicitor.com, which went live in August and says it is the UK’s largest with details of 13,000 lawyers, has built strong links with the University of Westminster law school. Since the summer it has give a number of students paid work experience.

Dr Lisa Webley, professor of empirical legal studies, said that subject to government funding from the Knowledge Transfer Partnership – a national scheme which helps unite businesses with academic researchers – Westminster academics will from next year work in partnership with the company.

The eventual aim is to develop an ‘algorithm’ – a software-based process built into a website – which help consumers to conduct targeted searches that yield the solicitor most suited to their legal need.

Dr Webley, with her colleague, barrister Marc Mason, has so far “identified from the existing academic literature a range of 10-15 factors… that influence consumer decision-making as regards choice of lawyer”, she said. These include such things as specialist panel membership, mediation expertise, and so on.

AccessSolicitor will test the academics’ assumptions by featuring them in the website, which means they can be “tested against consumer use”, said Dr Webley, adding that the longer term aim is to help the site “to develop an algorithm that will help to match legal consumers with a lawyer with whom they will wish to work with reference to those decision-making factors”.

The first version of the algorithm is scheduled to be up and running by the first quarter of 2014 but the company said it would be developed continuously as “the algorithm constantly learns and adapts according to user behaviour”.

The university will benefit in its turn, Dr Webley pointed out, since the website will give them “access to some of its data for academic research purposes so that we may carry out a more sophisticated analysis into the factors that affect consumers’ choice of lawyers”.

She said AccessSolicitor currently employs more than 10 Westminster students to write free legal guides, which are available on the site. The students benefit through the partnership by having “the opportunity to get industry experience and helps to further develop their expertise in areas such as family law, wills, neighbourhood disputes and welfare benefits”.

Warren Smith, the solicitor founder and chief executive, said: “This technology goes to the very heart of what AccessSolicitor.com does. It will allow us to deliver our promise to both lawyers and consumers – to provide a high-quality match that is beneficial to everyone.

“The legal profession is undergoing radical change. The vast advancements in technology in the last two decades have impacted all aspects of our lives, and yet in the legal profession, many are still grappling with how best to use them to their advantage: to better manage, serve and retain existing clients, and to win new ones.

“AccessSolicitor.com understands those challenges and is developing affordable, effective tools and mechanisms such as this algorithm so that everyone can benefit.”

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