The Legal Services Board (LSB) is set to recommend an accreditation scheme for review and comparison websites as take-up among both law firms and consumers continues to rise.
The news comes as the joint project between the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), Council for Licensed Conveyancers, CILEx Regulation and Bar Standards Board to pilot the best approaches to these sites is set to be extended, with more firms invited to join.
Encouraging the use of these websites – known as digital comparison tools (DCTs) – is a key element of work to develop indicators of the quality of lawyers’ work and in turn help consumers of legal services shop around.
Three types of information will be the heart of this: independent quantitative data, consumer feedback and general information about practices.
This will form part of a statement of policy the LSB is developing to set expectations of the frontline legal regulators on improving consumer engagement in the legal services market. It will also cover transparency of price, regulation and redress.
In February, the LSB published a discussion paper on quality indicators and a paper before last week’s meeting of the board said its suggested definition of quality, in terms of technical quality, service quality and outcomes, “carried support in principle”.
It went on: “Responses questioned the extent to which independent quantitative data was available and useful to consumers. There was little enthusiasm for use of first-tier complaints data, and strong opposition to use of success rates.”
Though views on the use of DCTs was mixed – we have reported on doubts expressed by the likes of the Law Society and Bar Council – the LSB said there was evidence of organic growth by DCTs and changes in consumer behaviour “that would support a market-led approach”, rather than a “standardised centralised model imposed by regulators”.
ReviewSolicitors reported a 160% increase in the number of consumers using the site following the first lockdown and a further 140% after the second lockdown, with about 2,000 firms now actively using the platform to collect reviews.
Some 800 legal services providers have registered with Trustpilot, with 25% more engaging with reviews since the start of the regulators’ pilot. Consumer reviews on Trustpilot about legal services have doubled over the last year.
The pilot has also led to “increased interest from providers, including some of the largest consumer-facing firms”, and there was “increasing innovation in this space, with new entrants including options not just for solicitors”.
But the LSB board was told: “While there are encouraging signs of progress, we consider that further action is needed to catalyse change.”
The paper said the policy statement would tell regulators that they needed to increase the provision and quality of core regulatory information, and make it available on an open data basis and in a standardised format suitable for DCTs.
They would need also to look at how best to contextualise data on providers – such as by size and practice area – “so that it is meaningful as possible to consumers and fair to providers”.
The statement would promote public and provider trust in DCTs “via a voluntary accreditation scheme with a code of conduct operated jointly by the regulatory bodies, supported by public legal education initiatives targeted at consumers”.
It could not be compulsory because the legal regulators do not have jurisdiction over DCTs.
There would be work as well to persuade public bodies to publish more information about the technical quality of legal work, such as error rates.
“We will consider whether a different approach may be appropriate in the legal aid sector,” the LSB said.
More than 70 law firms have so far signed up to the regulators’ pilot and the SRA said on Friday that “because there have already been so many encouraging signs of progress in the three months the pilot has been running, it will probably be extended, giving more firms the chance to sign up”.
Three further websites – Chawker, Search4Legal and Redefine Legal – have added to the seven that started the pilot.
The SRA said some firms in the pilot reported that they were incorporating customer feedback into individual staff performance reviews, adding them to the agenda at senior management meetings and using them as part of their rewards programmes, with positive feedback boosting staff morale.
“Many firms now routinely monitor for reviews submitted on different platforms and say that online reviews represent a core element of their approach to managing client feedback, both good and bad.”
Tracy Vegro, the SRA’s executive director for strategy and innovation, said: “We were obviously confident of seeing the project produce meaningful results that would help develop meaningful quality indicators, but we did not expect to see such a strong level of engagement initially, and to see other, far-reaching effects emerging too…
“Stimulating the market so it is motivated to act allows for greater innovation in the long run when compared to moving straight to increased regulation, and the sector is clearly reaping the benefits of this already. We would encourage any other firm to join the project.”