Independent websites providing impartial information on the quality of legal services providers are needed to guide people looking for a lawyer, the Legal Services Consumer Panel has argued.
In new research published today, it said consumers were currently forced to use “unreliable proxies” for quality, such as longevity of service, customer service and website design.
These independent websites could include customer testimonials and reviews, along with ratings and success rates.
The panel also recommended that firms publish more details of their lawyers’ credentials and more visible regulatory information.
More broadly it urged the legal regulators to begin to build “a common quality indicator framework and a mechanism to ensure that it is used across the sector”.
This would improve transparency and shopping around, and ultimately deliver “a fairer competitive marketplace which works better for consumers and for good legal service providers”, it said.
The panel has been pushing this agenda for several years – while the publication rules that came into force in December 2018 have improved the information on price and process on certain services that is available upfront, the panel remains concerned there are not enough indicators to assure consumers of the quality of providers.
It commissioned YouGov to run three focus groups made up in total of 25 consumers who had used legal services in the past year, 16 of whom had shopped around and nine who had not.
The research suggested that consumers lacked the legal knowledge required to assess legal service providers effectively and as a result may feel unconfident when faced with this task.
“Often, consumers rely on quality ‘markers’ as a proxy for quality of service and advice, rather than more concrete measures.
“There is no objective source on quality available at present to help consumers confidently make their selection, but there is appetite for access to impartial information in future.”
The research showed how a positive experience of customer service when first contacting a provider was often influential.
“When assessing the quality of their own provider, many consumers talk about professionalism, empathy and accessibility as central to their perception of quality. These elements are currently perceived as strong ‘quality indicators’ – in lieu of more concrete service quality information – that shape their views and experiences.”
It said this sense of professionalism extended to support staff, “so a well-briefed team is important”.
The ability to make appointments via a range of channels was key too, as was having access to online tools to make appointments and share information.
Accuracy was another indicator consumers used, so “well-written documents, free from grammatical or factual errors, are regarded as key”.
Consumers “lack a single objective source of information on quality”, the panel continued. “Few refer to reviews and testimonials to compare providers, relying more heavily on word of mouth recommendation.
“Many consumers expressed the desire for more information on staff experience including: their time in service, time with the firm, key areas of expertise and curriculum vitae (for individuals) to help them assess service quality upfront.
“More extensive information on partners was desirable for some on more complicated legal issues where a more experienced professional is required.”
With many assuming their provider was regulated, the panel said providers should highlight regulatory information more “at key touch points”.
The research found consumers wary of online reviews, preferring word-of-mouth recommendations as more candid or credible.
“There is clear scope to make more use of customer reviews. Consumers appear to consider that reviews on generic independent comparison websites are not appropriate for legal services providers and would prefer a specialist independent website, where they could find impartial information on such factors as success rate.”
Panel chair Sarah Chambers said: “There has been a patent lack of strategic direction and a sluggish pace in addressing consumers’ need for reliable, comparable quality indicators, almost four years after the Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) finding that lack of information on price and quality hampered competition.
“Legal service regulators must now respond by doing two things. Firstly, they must work towards a clear strategic goal of establishing a sector-wide framework for quality indicators. This framework should be rooted in an articulation of what good looks like for consumers.
“Secondly, regulators must accelerate their pace in this area. The CMA is scheduled to reassess the sector at the end of the year. If they find that little to no progress has been made on this issue, this could create a reputational risk for regulators as it might suggest that consumers are not at the heart of regulation.
“And of course, consumers will continue to be left without the basic information they need to choose a lawyer.”