Law firms are overwhelmingly failing to follow up referrals for basic legal work from comparison websites, in what is described today as a “massive own goal by the profession”.
According to a mystery shopping exercise carried out by the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) as part of a report into comparison websites, eight out of ten online referral requests for a simple will were ignored by law firms.
In a parallel exercise, higher-value conveyancing enquiries generated responses from lawyers in five out of ten cases.
LSCP chair Elisabeth Davies said: “It’s staggering that so many lawyers are refusing leads generated through comparison websites. Consumers are unlikely to use these services again if they get turned away – it’s a massive own goal by the profession.”
In its report, the LSCP acknowledged that “the legal services market is not a natural fit for comparison websites”. But it was “pleased there was no evidence of commercial influence” over the way information was presented by comparison websites, “such that consumers might make poor choices”.
However, it expressed concern that users’ personal details were often passed to third parties without consent. “Giving up valued privacy seems to be a condition of using many of these comparison services,” it observed.
Another concern was that some sites lacked transparency on their ownership or funding streams, and on market coverage, which “we inferred from search results was often low”. There was also evidence of “some dubious marketing claims, especially around quality”.
Despite its reservations, the panel concluded: “Comparison websites have the potential to benefit consumers by empowering them to drive competition between providers on price, quality and service features.
“They can also help to make the law more accessible, helping to address a situation where people are intimidated by lawyers and have low understanding of what they do and how they can help them.”
The LSCP called on the Legal Services Board (LSB) to engage with consumers, the websites, legal providers and frontline regulators to promote “the voluntary adoption of good practice standards”. If self-regulation was unsuccessful, the LSB should consider accreditation of comparison websites, the panel argued.
The LSCP was told by one website operator that it had approached the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Law Society seeking access to their records on firms. Permission was refused.
Ms Davies noted the “hurdles that comparison websites need to overcome” and commented: “Approved regulators could help break down these barriers by opening up their professional registers so that the websites can provide basic information to consumers about the different services offered by law firms.”
The LSCP research ‘road-tested’ 16 comparison websites by mystery shopping in November, judging them against 20 standards it devised, including elements such as independence and impartiality, accuracy about pricing, and the use of personal information.
Websites tested spanned price comparison sites; referral sites, which collect basic information and pass leads to subscribing providers; feedback sites; and directories which simply list providers who pay to appear. Sites contacted included major players such as Contact Law, LawyerLocator and Comparelegalcosts.
The panel found that just 1% of people who purchased legal services in the past two years used a comparison website, although LSB research in December 2009 found 42% of consumers would like to see them. A Marketlaw survey last year found 35 active websites generating enquiries for solicitors.
The LSCP said the reluctance of some firms to offer fixed prices was a barrier to comparison sites, but predicted that alternative business structures would bring change on that front, as well as challenging “lawyers’ cultural aversion to marketing”.