Lawyers’ lack of transparency over cost – rather than the actual cost of their services – is a major barrier to consumers seeking legal advice and the primary cause of a breakdown in trust between them, Legal Services Board (LSB) research has found.
While the public respects lawyers’ knowledge and expertise, it found “a widespread view that the customer service they provide is often fairly poor” – but also hope for high street firms in the importance consumers place on local standing when choosing a lawyer.
The survey – carried out by Optimisa Research and involving two focus groups and 48 in-depth interviews – sought to explain why people who do not use or trust legal providers make the decisions they do.
Consumers felt that lawyers show little empathy for their situation – leading to worries that involving one could have an “unnecessary negative impact on the resulting relationship with the other party” – displayed a lack of transparency over cost and were dishonest.
It explained: “Lack of transparency within the legal profession is twofold: firstly consumers are not clear how lawyers cost their time and there is a common view that even if a price is quoted at the start of a case, this can escalate throughout the legal journey and end up costing much more than expected.
“Secondly there is a lack of understanding of how lawyers spend their time and what they deliver for the fees they charge. There is a very low awareness of how long specific tasks take and therefore consumers focus on the details provided, such as photocopying, sending letters/e-mails etc.
“[This] leads people to conclude that lawyers are not always honest, which can then make them question the initial perceived reliability of the service they offer. Although people respect their knowledge, there is a view that advice may be skewed towards that which would be most financially advantageous to themselves and their practice.”
The actual cost was a major issue too and is a “barrier for many”, but increased transparency “will provide a sense of not being ‘ripped off’ that should ultimately lead to greater trust”.
The research backed up the recent Legal Services Consumer Panel tracker survey in finding that people have a much more positive view of their own lawyer than the profession as a whole, which it said was because negative experiences are more widely shared through the media and word of mouth.
Among the factors that promote trust in lawyers was local standing. “Especially important for first-time users, firms that are well established in their local community tend to be perceived as more trustworthy/reliable than chains or less local firms.
“Such firms are expected to have ‘inside knowledge’ that will create an advantage, for example knowing how the local council operates, knowing local planners and so on. Being long-established or getting involved in local charities/sponsoring community events also boost perceptions of the firm and increase feelings of trust. This goes some way to recreating the sense of being part of the community which is often cited as a reason to seek advice from Citizens Advice Bureaux.”
The research also found that “regulation of the legal services profession is not working as well as it might do to promote trust”, because of a perception that lawyers are a law unto themselves, low awareness/visibility of regulatory and complaints bodies, and cynicism about the chances of making a successful complaint.
It said some consumers find it difficult to ascertain whether they have a legal need, whether that warrants formal legal advice or whether support for their specific type of problem is available – “consumers appear to be unaware of the breadth of services available” from solicitors and “this suggests there may be an opportunity for the profession to raise public awareness of the range of services on offer and the benefits of utilising a lawyer in specific circumstances where consumers would not automatically think of the legal profession as the place to turn”.
Accompanying the survey was an academic paper on the lessons learned from ‘behavioural economics’ – the study of why people think and act – on decision-making in legal services.
The LSB said the research – carried out by Professor John Maule of Leeds University Business School – showed that decisions on whether the use legal services were “more likely to be taken on instinct and previous personal experience than on detailed analysis. Despite this speed of decision making and imbalance in information, however, the decisions are very often sensible in practice”.
Chris Kenny, the LSB’s chief executive, said: “People have a variety of rational and emotional reasons for deciding whether or not to go to a lawyer… But experience shows that it is possible for lawyers to provide better value, more information and variety in their service offerings to help people find legal services that meet their needs.”