Solicitors “have more positive view of their services” than consumers do

Legal advice: Different perceptions

There are “several discrepancies” between the quality of the service solicitors believe they are providing and what consumers perceive, research for the Solicitors Regulation Authority has found.

It also said socio-economic status (SES) is more strongly linked to consumer vulnerability than ethnicity.

“Easy-to-implement, scalable training interventions” could help low-SES consumers recognise legal problems and reduce barriers.

The regulator commissioned Bayes Business School at City University in London last year to improve the work done to date on consumer segmentation, which is a way of understanding the differences between groups of clients based on distinctions like the type of legal matter or demographic, such as age or race.

The SRA said it would take the research into account when developing the next steps for its transparency rules, which require law firms to publish certain information on fees, complaints and regulatory status.

Separate research published yesterday showed significant levels of non-compliance with the transparency rules but that they were making a positive difference to consumers.

The final report of the five-stage project has been published, highlighting how many legal service providers worried that price transparency was too confusing, “whereas consumers appear to value transparency”.

It went on: “Legal service providers generally believe that they are providing higher-quality services and greater value for money than consumers believe them to be providing.”

Similarly, while many lawyers believed their communications were clear and effective, “many consumers disagree”. For example, “consumers perceive legal terminology as intimidating, particularly when providers do not offer opportunities for clarification”.

While lawyers thought they understood clients’ situations and needs, “many clients themselves perceive a lack of understanding and empathy on the part of legal service providers”.

The report said: “Addressing or resolving these different perceptions and beliefs could improve satisfaction among providers and consumers of legal services.”

Phase 1 of the research was a literature review. Phase 2 involved 35 in-depth interviews with consumers and small businesses to assess their legal needs and experiences in their legal journey.

Barriers for both groups included “perceptions of, or actual, high cost”, concerns about personal/client relationships and “the time and energy required to pursue legal services”.

Other barriers for small businesses included “concerns about cash flow disruptions and the difficulty of selecting a legal service provider”.

Phase 3 found that online services were “mostly preferred for transactional issues”, and face-to-face provision “mostly preferred for non-transactional issues”, although the differences in preferences were “minor”, with transactional work including conveyancing and commercial property, and non-transactional employment and housing.

“Overall, there is no one-size-fits-all ideal service provider. This means that we cannot assume that everyone facing a similar legal issue will prefer a certain method of service delivery, pricing model, or speed of service.

“Therefore, different legal service offerings are needed to encourage engagement from a range of consumers, and service providers can then tailor their provision to their clients’ personal needs and preferences, where possible.”

When deciding to use a legal services provider, most consumers valued providers who were “very approachable”, could “communicate effectively”, have experience in the relevant specialism and “offer regular updates”.

Being approachable “was preferred over efficiency and speed by most consumers, with some segments valuing this attribute very highly”.

Over 1,000 consumers took part in phase 4, which focused on SES and ethnicity, with previous research showing that low-SES and ethnic minority consumers were “particularly vulnerable to having unmet legal needs”.

Bayes said “SES predicted attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours better than ethnicity did” and vulnerability “is much more strongly correlated with SES than ethnicity”.

Low-SES consumers were “less likely to recognise their own legal issues” and “to feel legally empowered to address those legal issues”.

There was “a substantial gap between their need for and use of legal services” and, as a result, they appeared to “experience more unmet legal needs than high-SES respondents”.

Phase 5 of the research consisted of a “randomised experiment” with 800 low-SES consumers, who were “educated about what ‘legal matters’ are and how to recognise them” and also told “where to find legal information and get legal help”.

Researchers said these “easy-to-implement, scalable training interventions” could improve both recognition of legal problems and reduce barriers to accessing services while leading to “increased intentions to use legal services”.

The SRA said the research “shows that people highly value approachability and clear explanations, and this is likely to improve access to legal services”.

The findings would be taken into account in “considering the next steps” for the transparency rules. “We will also consider how we and others could mitigate people’s vulnerability and anxieties when needing legal help.”

The research was conducted Professors Irene Scopelliti and Zachary Estes.

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