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Legal market “at standstill” as clients fail to shop around – but they are happy with lawyers they pick

Martin: good and bad news

The legal services market is “at a standstill”, with consumers still relying “too heavily on reputation” and reluctant to shop around, the Legal Services Consumer Panel has said.

At the same time, however, their satisfaction with the advice they received was high.

The panel said that, since there was “little movement towards greater consumer choice”, it was essential that “transparency remedies” outlined by the Competition and Markets Authority, including forcing law firms to publish prices, were implemented.

The panel’s annual tracker survey for 2017, carried out by YouGov and involving 1,600 consumers of legal services, showed that the “small” proportion of consumers shopping around went up by marginally to 27% – the highest level recorded to date.

Sharp falls in the use of fixed fees by solicitors (from 61% to 57%) and barristers (from 37% to 31%) were offset by a rise in the figure for licensed conveyancers (from 70% to 73%), and the overall figure of 48% for fixed fees remained the same as last year.

Public trust in lawyers rose from 42% to 45%, a similar figure to accountants – far below doctors and teachers, but well ahead of bankers and estate agents.

A large majority of clients were satisfied with the service they received (80%), and the figure for those who believed it was good value of money, 61%, was little changed on previous years.

Satisfaction with outcome was highest for will-writing (96%), but was also very high for conveyancing (93%), followed by family law (around 80%), housing and personal injury (70%).

However, the panel said that consumers were still relying “too heavily on reputation” to determine their provider (75%), with only 2% using comparison websites.

This was blamed partly on the “lack of pertinent information” provided by law firms to help consumers make informed choices. The panel said that only 6% of consumers found pricing information on websites.

Price was the most important reason after reputation for choosing a law firm. In some areas of law, such as conveyancing, it was equally important to reputation, and in other areas, such as will-writing, price was more important.

After price, the most important factors driving choice were specialism, having a local office and speed of delivery.

The proportion of consumers receiving their service through email or the internet, rather than by post, continued its slow increase – from 20% in 2012 to 27% this year.

The figure was much higher for consumers living in London (37%) and higher for people from wealthier social backgrounds (32%). While use of the telephone and post fell slightly, face-to-face advice held its ground.

Use of unbundling (at 19%) showed only a slight increase since the survey started gathering data in this area in 2014.

The proportion of consumers who were dissatisfied with a legal service but did nothing about it, referred to by the panel as “silent sufferers”, shot up from 35% to 49% this year.

One reason for this might be that the number of those who took advice from a third party about what to do about their complaint almost doubled to around 15%.

Dr Jane Martin, chair of the panel, commented: “The good news is that levels of satisfaction are high for many elements of service delivery.

“But our concern remains that a satisfactory service may only be available to those who can successfully navigate the sector.

“Questions should also be asked about readiness to complain when things go wrong. The market appears to be at a standstill in important areas which are crucial for consumers’ decision-making and competition.”

Kathryn Stone, the chief legal ombudsman, added: “It is important that all members of the public, from whatever background, know they have access to justice and can complain about poor service through the Legal Ombudsman.

“It is disappointing to see that people seem to have more confidence in complaining about poor service in supermarkets, banks and mobile phone companies than legal services.

“Our new strategy has a focus on informing consumers as we want to increase the public’s understanding of how they can exercise their legal rights.”