Firms could be forced to point consumers to LeO complaints records


Comparison websites: Demand may grow

Law firms may be compelled to point potential clients to Legal Ombudsman (LeO) decisions about them to help make it easier for consumers to choose a lawyer.

A long-awaited study from three legal regulators found that the public considered reviews and comparison websites helpful in choosing a legal services provider, but “barriers remain to making factual information on services and performance more readily available”.

A good proportion of lawyers were willing to engage with reviews – and benefitting from doing so – but they remained wary of comparison websites.

While law firms have been required to publish price and service information on certain legal services since 2019, the research looked what quality indicators could help consumers.

It was published yesterday by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), Council for Licensed Conveyancers, and CILEx Regulation following a year-long pilot that involved 70 law firms and nine so-called DCTs (digital comparison tools).

Among other activities were a law firm survey that showed almost half were using review websites but most opposed comparison services, and a consumer survey that found review websites to be a helpful tool, with price comparison websites less used but also seen as valuable.

While the pilot has come to an end, the regulators have committed to continuing to work with law firms and DCTs “to explore further ways to expand the use and awareness of quality indicators to help the public make informed decisions”.

The report said: “We saw enthusiasm and strong levels of interest from consumers in a number of legal service quality indicators, including online reviews and star ratings in particular.” The number and content of reviews were also important.

“Consumers were interested in legal service comparison websites, and ways to find out more about them,” it went on.

“Review websites reported increased numbers of legal service providers and consumers engaging with their platforms. This was supported by targeted work from regulators helping to build that engagement.”

This included the SRA publishing ‘don’t forget to compare’ information for the public and launching an interactive tool for consumers to help them find and use DCTs.

The SRA used Facebook ads and Google Display Ads to direct consumers towards its ‘shop around’ messages where their online activity suggested they may be interested in either conveyancing or employment law services.

For Google Display Ads, 5.4% of conveyancing consumers and 4.2% of employment consumers who saw the advert clicked through, compared to the average of 0.35% across all sectors.

Trustpilot reported an increase of a third in the number of law firms engaging with the site during the pilot period and a 9% increase in the number of reviews. ReviewSolicitors saw a 66% growth in the number of users and 200% increase in the number of law firms.

Researchers found DCTs hesitant to republish LeO decisions, with concerns including contextualisation. But 70% of consumers saw the data as important; they were interested in seeing numbers of complaints as a proportion of cases dealt with, and the nature of complaints being made.

The report concluded that voluntary regulatory approaches “will not significantly develop this quality indicator”, meaning regulation may be needed.

“A regulatory approach could require providers to start publishing or connecting with current published ombudsman decisions from their websites. In this way, LeO decisions might firstly become more visible and accessible as quality indicators through provider’s own websites – something found by our research to hold value with many consumers – while work with DCTs continues.”

HM Land Registry data, such as on the number of requisitions conveyancing firms made, could also be useful, but again making the data meaningful was an issue. “The regulators are working with HMLR to assess opportunities to improve access to its data for third parties, including consumers.”

A Legal Services Consumer Panel report last year said there was “no prototype” for how to contextualise such data about law firms for consumers, and it would not be perfect from the start.

Pilot law firms described seeing commercial benefits from engagement with online reviews, “including some of the smallest firms who see increased contact from consumers as a direct result of online reviews”.

While law-specific comparison websites, such as Law Superstore and reallymoving, took part in the pilot, big brands did not. USwitch “explained the challenge of scaling and commercialising legal service comparison, given the infrequency of consumer interactions with legal services”.

A social media campaign pushing the SRA’s comparison tool generated 50,000 visits; 22% who used it went on to visit the website of a featured provider; the most popular was Law Superstore.

“With shopping around for legal services increasing, demand for comparison websites and DCT platforms that combine price comparison with tools to compare quality indicators – such as online reviews – may still increase,” the report said.

Consumers were more likely to use comparison sites for legal services once they were shown them but this “may not automatically improve” consumer access to quality indicators.

“Unlike online review websites, price comparison websites tend to list firms who subscribe to their platform. This gives subscribing providers a degree of influence over categories of comparable information that are published about them.”

The report did not identify significant benefits for consumers from a DCT accreditation scheme. “Many DCTs choose to operate outside them in other sectors. And our pilot activities show it is possible to secure good engagement with them and build consumer confidence to use them, in other ways.

“We have concluded an accreditation scheme is an unnecessary step for the legal services sector.”

DCTs involved in the pilot had to sign up to a voluntary code of conduct. “Some DCTs are enthusiastic to remain party to voluntary arrangements. We think this approach can help to articulate good standards for DCTs in the sector.”

The report concluded that “targeted work to continue progressing quality indicators is timely, with significantly more consumers now routinely shopping around for legal services” – the regulators also have to comply with the Legal Services Board’s policy statement on consumer empowerment.

It listed seven actions to help regulators do this and respond to the Competition & Markets Authority’s calls for action on legal service quality indicators.

These included using “targeted activities with consumers to improve their access to, and use of, comparable information about the nature and quality of legal services and DCTs” and exploring “opportunities and regulatory levers” to improve the accessibility and availability of LeO decisions for consumers.

SRA chief executive Paul Philip said: “The public increasingly expect to find readily available and comparable information online to help inform their buying decisions. Easy access to the sort of information that allows consumers to compare the quality of the legal services they are looking for benefits both consumers and firms.

“Our pilot demonstrated that while progress is being made in this area, there is clearly still some way to go in both identifying the most useful indicators of quality, and working more closely with those who can help share this data.”

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