The pandemic has accelerated the shift to the online delivery of legal services, with consumers generally happy with the experience, major new research has found.
However, the Legal Services Consumer Panel’s annual tracker survey – now in its tenth year – found that levels of shopping around for a lawyer have stagnated, with regulators urged to step up their work in developing objective measures of providers’ quality.
YouGov polled 3,500 consumers in February and March, and found that 54% of those who had used a legal service since the start of the pandemic said it was delivered online, compared to 36% who used a legal service in the year before the pandemic, and 21% back in the first survey in 2012.
Six in 10 consumers since the first lockdown said the experience was as they expected, but 26% said it was better than expected, with only 10% saying it had been worse.
More than a third (35%) said it was important for them that providers offered an online service that could be tracked, a figure that had jumped eight points post-pandemic.
“These results underscore a real opportunity to increase access for both younger and minority ethnic consumers, who are more likely to use online services,” said Sarah Chambers, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel.
“Regulators should not shy away from encouraging providers to develop online solutions, supported where appropriate by innovative use of lawtech, in parallel with maintaining face-to-face services.”
Covid also saw an increase in the number of those prepared to use unbundled services and do some of the work themselves, from 14% before the pandemic to 19% after.
Those who used legal services during the pandemic were more likely to say that they shopped around than those who used legal services in year before (35% v 27%) – but overall shopping around has only increased slowly over the past decade despite regulatory efforts to encourage it through greater price and service transparency.
Immigration (49%) and conveyancing (38%) clients were most likely to shop around, with probate (19%) and accident or injury claims (16%) clients the least likely.
Younger consumers were keener on shopping around, with 41% of 18-34 year olds doing so in comparison to 26% of those aged 55+.
Most commonly consumers compared three (41%) or four (19%) providers, and generally decided within a week; use of comparison websites, though increasing, especially among younger consumers, remained very low.
Reputation (80%) continued to be front of mind when choosing a provider, followed by price (71%) and providers being specialists in their area (70%); there has been virtually no change in the proportion of consumers who found it easy to make comparisons, however (58% in 2021 and 57% in 2012).
Since 2012, there has been an increase in the amount of choice people felt they had when choosing their provider, up from 66% to 74% in 2021, but the latter figure has remained unchanged for the last four years.
Ms Chambers said it was “disappointing” that consumers were still relying on gut feeling and subjective recommendations as proxies for quality.
“They deserve more than this: regulators need to step up their work in developing objective quality indicators in order to empower consumers to make an informed choice of provider.”
Price transparency has only had a limited effect, with consumers most commonly finding the price of their service after talking to the provider.
At the same time, the panel has tracked the increasing popularity of fixed-fee arrangements, enjoyed by 52% of consumers in 2021, compared to 38% in 2012.
Positively, there has also been an increase in consumer satisfaction with the service received (from 79% in 2012 to 83% in 2021) and the outcome (from 84% to 89% respectively) and more consumers were very satisfied overall.
Consumers who received their service face-to-face were more likely to be satisfied with the service provided (92%) than those who dealt with their lawyer online (79%).
Two-thirds of consumers considered the overall service and advice provided to be good value for money; those with more commoditised matters, such as a will writing service (77%), were most likely to say this, and people dealing with more complex issues such as family matters or accident or injury claims the least (both 56%).