Although 80% of lawyers at small firms rate their services as ‘above average’, only 40% of clients rate them that way, a major study has found.
The survey found that lawyers misunderstood clients’ priorities, particularly the importance placed on regular updates and listening skills.
The research, commissioned by the LexisNexis Business of Law blog, found the top three things clients looked for in their solicitors were clear indications of costs, regular updates on progress and a clear explanation of charging at the outset.
Lawyers were right in identifying clients’ top priority but put the need for regular updates in 10th place, rather than second, and the need to be good at listening in 12th place, rather than sixth.
The report, the third in the annual ‘bellwether’ series and entitled ‘Age of the Client’, surveyed over 500 clients and 118 lawyers, three-quarters from firms with up to 20 fee-earners and a quarter who were sole practitioners.
Professor John Flood, who wrote the foreword to the report, told Legal Futures: “Lawyers in small firms and sole practices have not quite caught on to how the market is changing. They tend to stick to the verities of how the client relationship was long ago.
“Clients want a dialogue with their practitioner – not just to be told the way things will be. The lack of time spent talking to clients and informing them about progress is not acceptable any more.
“There is a remarkable difference between what the large firms are doing with their clients, through online portals, and the small firms.
“Listening is a crucial thing. It takes concentration and devotion, rather than fiddling with the phone. We don’t do enough at law schools to teach these skills.”
Professor Flood said lawyers tended to do the job and move on, rather than spend time reflecting on what the experience was like for the client. He said increased use of ratings sites might help.
The professor said it was possible for big players in the market to abuse their position, but they could be held to account more easily than small firms and offer facilities, such as funding, that small firms could not.
“The number of sole practices will diminish. They are under severe, severe pressure. However, small firms have the ability to connect with their community in a way that it is hard for anyone else to do. They must play on it.”
The report painted a positive picture of the financial performance of small firms, which it described as “not just surviving, but thriving”.
Almost two-thirds of lawyers (63%) said their practices were growing, compared to 42% last year.
Jon Whittle, marketing development director at LexisNexis, said the small firm sector had gone from “holding on to definitely thinking that there is an opportunity to grow”.
He went on: “There has been a market increase in confidence. This is a market that is buoyant and sees itself as buoyant.
“There are challenges for the traditional end of the market, but 80% of firms are actively embracing change. For some the extent of the changes are exhilarating, while for others there is almost a sense that it is not fair.
“Clients’ perceptions of power in relationships with professionals has changed dramatically and they have a different set of expectations.
“Many firms are ripping up the old model and offering new services, but I don’t think the change in expectations has been recognised by some lawyers in the market.”