The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has warned that it cannot stop the growing interest in featuring barristers on online review and comparison websites, even if the profession wants it to.
The regulator has been conducting a pilot since last year into how such websites – – or digital comparison tools (DCTs), as they are known – can work with the Bar.
Writing on the BSB website, director-general Mark Neale said it only had limited control over the market.
“In our dialogue with barristers, we have heard important reservations, in particular, about online client reviews, which we must certainly take seriously: that online reviews will discriminate against barristers from some backgrounds; that consumers may inadvertently leave reviews which breach court orders on confidentiality; that reviews are bound to be influenced by the outcome of the case. We must evaluate these concerns.
“The unspoken assumption is that, if any or all of these concerns are substantiated, we can simply turn off client reviews.
“That is unlikely to be realistic. It may no longer be possible to stem the tide – consumers increasingly go online to find services and encounter there comparison sites of all kinds – but it may be possible to channel at least some of the water.”
Earlier this year, the vice-chair of the Bar Council, Sam Townend KC, described the use of DCTs for barristers as “utterly inappropriate”.
Mr Neale recounted that, when the BSB first looked at this issue, it had assumed there were few existing comparison websites for the Bar and those that existed would be unlikely to include client reviews.
“We were, however, wrong on both counts,” he said. “In fact, online comparison of barristers is well established.”
The Bar Council runs the Direct Access Portal, while Clerksroom Direct and Juriosity provide a similar offering. “Hundreds of barristers have already signed up to these services,” Mr Neale observed.
Other DCTs which have hitherto focused on law firms, such as Legal Utopia and The Law Superstore, have expanded to barristers.
“Then there are more general players, such as Trustpilot, which are multi-sectoral and keen, via our pilot, to include barristers in their comparisons of legal services.” There were also ad hoc reviews of individual barristers on Google and other platforms.
Mr Neale said: “In short, the tide is flooding in, but it is flooding in through many different channels and rivulets. None of channels and rivulets are under BSB control and BSB has limited influence over them.”
He suggested that the regulator’s current work was less of a pilot and more of a market study.
“Most obviously our study is not going to answer a binary question – is online comparison a good thing for the Bar or not? Instead, it will help us to understand how the DCT market operates, and could operate, for the Bar…
“We shall learn from this exercise what comparisons consumers find genuinely useful and what they don’t. We shall explore how online comparison can support barristers’ own services and the marketing of those services. (There may be opportunities as well as risks for the profession.) We shall learn whether the concerns about online reviews are well founded or not.
“Armed with this evidence, we can then consider how we, as the regulator, might go about influencing this market to the benefit of consumers and of the profession.”
He predicted that the outcome of the pilot would be nuanced – “that online comparison can be helpful in some circumstances, but not others. If so, we shall then have to consider how we, as the regulator, influence the right outcomes for consumers”.
This might include changes to the BSB’s existing transparency rules.