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Consumers “enthusiastic” about all-encompassing register of lawyers

Phillips: The market needs to work better for consumers

Consumers are “enthusiastic” about the creation of a single digital register of legal services providers, a report for the Legal Services Board (LSB) has found.

The LSB said that to get one up and running quickly, it might at first include only basic information along with complaints data, but it could be extended later to include consumer feedback.

The Competition and Markets Authority recommended the creation of a single digital register of legal services providers in an update last December [1] on progress made since its market study in 2016.

Research commissioned by the LSB’s Public Panel from Community Research and published this week found that 69 consumers who took part in an online discussion forum were “enthusiastic” about a single online register.

“They felt it would offer an impartial, trustworthy ‘whole market view’, addressing challenges in comparing and choosing providers.

“Participants stressed the importance of the register becoming well-known, both to drive trust, and to help it become a familiar way of choosing legal services.”

Researchers said consumers had a long ‘wish list’ of what they would like to feature in the register, including fees information, customer ratings and reviews, complaints data and star ratings.

They said consumers found it hard to choose legal providers and “felt anxious with the idea of finding a provider from scratch, particularly as this is not a familiar process, the stakes are high, and legal issues are stressful in themselves”.

Consumers said the search process was made difficult by the lack of “easily comparable information online, especially information relating to customer experience”, and as a result they “fell back on the familiar” by using firms they had used before or seeking advice from friends.

Of “all the ideas discussed”, consumers believed that the single digital register was “a significant improvement on the current information available online”.

Although consumers were used to using review sites and other digital comparison tools when making other buying decisions, there was “low awareness” of their use in the law and some questioned how they could work “in a market in which price is not necessarily the deciding factor”.

In a discussion paper on quality indicators, the LSB said that to get the single register “up and running quickly”, it might only feature “basic information about practitioners and entities”, along with “objective data generated by the regulatory bodies and the Legal Ombudsman”.

The LSB said the amount of information could grow over time to “hold or link to a wider range of information on quality, for example consumer feedback”, although extending the register in this way would need “careful consideration”.

On digital comparison tools, the LSB said there could either be support for a “flourishing market”, to sit alongside the register, or the creation of a “platform operating a standardised customer feedback system”, which would co-exist with commercial comparison tools.

The LSB said the advantages of the first route was that comparison tools were “likely to innovate”, allowing them to “deliver benefits more quickly and cheaply than regulators establishing a bespoke platform for the sector”.

The oversight regulator said a different option would be to require providers to publish complaints data on their websites or “to operate a customer feedback mechanism using a standardised scoring system”, which could be embedded on their websites.

The LSB said challenges to this approach would be the cost to law firms of publishing the data, the difficulty of developing a standardised approach, compliance and consumers’ scepticism about the value of website reviews.

Dr Helen Phillips, chair of the LSB, said: “The market needs to work better for consumers so that people who need help can find it easily.

“Although there has been a welcome improvement in price transparency following the introduction of new rules and guidance by the regulatory bodies, price is just one aspect of consumer choice.

“People also need information about the quality of services, among other factors, to assess value for money in the round.”

The Solicitors Regulation Authority, Council for Licensed Conveyancers and CILEx Regulation launched a pilot scheme [2] earlier this month to develop ways for law firms to engage better with comparison websites and online review platforms, starting with conveyancing and employment work.