The challenge for legal price comparison sites is to reconcile the public’s desire for an instant quote and fixed fees “with the reality that many areas of law are complex, lengthy, unpredictable, and, as such, cannot be achieved on a fixed-fee basis”, a Law Society report has concluded.
The study – aimed at stimulating debate around applying the comparison website model to legal services – said that such sites do not acknowledge “the extremely difficult task they may be setting consumers”.
It explained: “Faced with three or four firms offering to do similar work for a similar price, how do consumers choose which one to instruct? Searching for a solicitor on the Internet removes many of the social cues that consumers in the past may have picked up from enquiring via phone or in person – cues which contribute to a feeling of (un)ease with a solicitor/firm and ultimately factor in the consumers’ instruction decisions.”
As a result, the report said, “instead consumers rely on proxies for quality – the most typical of which is price”.
Some of the answer may come in whether the electronic marketplace develops so as to emphasises comparison of prices or service characteristics, the report said.
“And for the latter, consumer reviews are gaining momentum. Sites such as Amazon and TripAdvisor have long enabled the public to post a review of a product or experience. The ability of consumers to rate their solicitor online holds appeal for many, not least those trying to choose a solicitor.
“Yet the impact and purpose of such review sites need detailed examination – from the flow of work to highly rated firms or away from those firms which have been flamed (with or without justification).”
The report noted that reviews will only be “reasonably reliable” in relation to service standards, rather than quality of advice. Even then “it may be hard to compare [service] with the service offered by other firms unless you use a lot of solicitors”.
Law Society chief executive Des Hudson – who chaired a debate this week to coincide with publication of the report – said that while comparison websites save consumers time, they need to recognise that many areas of law are complex and cannot be achieved on a fixed-fee basis.
“A price comparison website cannot be fully effective without consideration of other areas such as quality of service, complexity of the case, interaction with the client and so on. How a comparison site can manage these aspects so that the information provided is not only useful to the client but also something they feel able to trust is a complex area of debate.”
The Legal Services Consumer Panel is planning to investigate good practice standards for legal comparison websites.