The Bar Standards Board has warned consumers about the risks of choosing a barrister based on online reviews, while telling the profession that it needs to watch this fast-growing area.
The Bar Council responded with much stronger advice about the dangers of what legal regulators call digital comparison tools.
The BSB has issued good practice for barristers  and advice for consumers  on online feedback as part of its response to the Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) 2016 report on the legal market.
In the consumer advice, it said that “unlike other sectors (hotels, restaurants etc), it is more difficult for a client to assess whether or not their case has been well represented or whether they have been well advised because this usually involves the use of highly specialist skills and knowledge.
“Clients may sometimes simply equate the quality of their barrister with whether or not they won their case, for example.
“Online feedback platforms are also in an early stage of development within the legal services market so the reviews will not be as wide-ranging or as useful as you might expect.”
The BSB stressed that online platforms were “just one way to get information about a barrister”.
Its law firm guidance noted that the CMA report encouraged legal service providers to engage with review platforms, as did the Legal Services Consumer Panel, which saw online reviews as one development which would empower consumer choice.
The BSB said: “We recognise that online platforms are not developed for barristers’ services. However, the technology for online feedback platforms and comparison tools is continuously being developed and barristers, chambers and BSB entities are increasingly thinking about how to enhance their online presence. This may be an area to watch for the future.”
In response to the publications, a Bar Council spokesman said: “There are real dangers in the use of digital comparison tools for legal services, not least that client confidentiality and legal privilege will often prevent lawyers from engaging with them in a meaningful way, and that clients are often not well placed to judge the quality of the advice or representation they have received.
“For those (such as barristers) who are involved in dispute resolution, there is an added concern in the tendency of some to equate quality with whether or not they have won their case.
“Not only do these difficulties limit the usefulness of such platforms for building constructive dialogue between clients and their lawyers, but they risk distorting the market and giving rise to real unfairness and misinformation.”
The Bar Council said instructing a barrister was “not the same as buying a stereo or even a less complex service such as advice on a suitable financial product”.
The spokesman added: “Today’s barristers welcome the direct, constructive feedback from clients which this guidance encourages, but it is questionable whether it will allay the significant concerns about online comparison and feedback sites.”
BSB director of regulatory assurance, Oliver Hanmer, said: “Seeking and receiving feedback from those to whom we provide services is an important way to see where we are doing things well or where we might need to improve.
“Many at the Bar have mechanisms in place to obtain feedback and this guidance is designed to help build on those arrangements but also to encourage others to introduce them.
“We are particularly keen to see the Bar seek ways of gathering feedback from their lay clients. We hope that our guidance to the public on how to provide feedback will make this easier.”