We’re all meerkats now: comparison websites for legal services

So Solicitors from Hell has had to shut up shop and slink back into the shadows. Lawyers up and down the land can breath a sigh of relief, at least until the next aggrieved client feels strongly enough to set up Hell is Solicitors or Solicitors can go to Hell or some other variation on the words ‘hell’ and ‘solicitors’.

Such websites are understandable, if unhelpful (and I have written about them before), given the sensitive nature of much legal work and the myriad opportunities for it to go spectacularly wrong. From the perspective of both lawyers and consumers it would be far more useful if someone could come up with the definitive comparison website for legal services.

I am not sure the Law Society agrees with me on this one (not for the first time). I have just read the report it published earlier in November, Applying the comparison web site model to legal services, and I didn’t get the impression it was wholly positive about this likely development.

To be fair, it’s a good report with some very useful data and analysis about how consumers shop online and use comparison websites; and it does flag up some important questions about how the model might be applicable to legal services. But, typically for an organisation that tends to be somewhat reactionary about change, it was rather presented as if these sites were a threat to the legal profession and fraught with problems for consumers.

I don’t want to pretend there aren’t complexities with presenting legal providers in this way that don’t apply, for example, to insurance or holidays. I do take the view, however, that there must be a way around it. Of course, legal services are not homogenous and neither are clients, but I am quite sure there are people clever enough to design a programme that takes this into account.

It’s not all about price, but price can be a good indicator for consumers if that is the determining factor in their decision about whether and how to purchase a particular legal product or service. Just as when buying car insurance online, the quotes indicate where they are not comparing like with like: some include a courtesy car and legal insurance as standard, with others you have to pay extra; and you can vary the excess you pay.

Most consumers would be perfectly capable of making an initial comparison on price and then looking to other indicators, including what the fixed price includes and consumer reviews, before making their decision. Perhaps it is the prospect of more self-informed consumers, challenging the traditional model and having higher expectations about legal services that makes the Law Society and its members a little nervous?

I suspect part of the problem is that most small and medium sized law firms haven’t really thought terribly hard about how the market is changing and the impact this will have on them.

For example, do they have any idea how much of their income is based on the information and process aspects of legal work and how much from exercising their professional judgement, the bit where solicitors can really add value? If not, they had better find out quickly because it is the information and process bits that will be captured by the new entrants to the market who can deliver them more efficiently and cheaply.

The trick for any legal comparison website will be to give consumers transparent and reliable information about how and where they can purchase purely process-driven legal services while filtering out those whose needs are more complicated and require the judgement of a professional.

Although I don’t see why even this scenario can’t be covered: if I take my car for a service, I know the basic fee is £150 but I may well have to pay more on top of that for any parts or labour required to stop it falling apart. Why can’t the same apply to fixed fees for wills, conveyancing or divorce for example?

One question raised by the Law Society report is whether consumers are able to rate or comment on the quality of the service they have received from the professional when they have ‘bowed to the latter’s greater knowledge’. On one level, no they can’t, which is rather the whole point of going to a solicitor in the first place.

But does this matter? Most consumers will assume that all solicitors are technically competent, just as they assume all doctors are and, indeed, should be. In making a judgement and exercising a choice they will instead look at other factors, such as service quality, convenience, price.

I suppose it makes lawyers a bit uncomfortable that consumers will focus on these areas and not on the quality of advice and professional judgement, which is, after all, what they spent years learning. Nonetheless, that is what they will do and lawyers will have to get better at them. They will have to remember to phone the client back when they said they would, even the annoying ones, and they will have to deliver fixed fees and stick to them, even if they sometimes make a loss.

There are already a number of legal services comparison websites, although they all work slightly differently. I have to confess that I wouldn’t have a clue which one to use and would probably, like 60% of consumers, get a personal recommendation if I needed to use a solicitor.

A definitive model will doubtless emerge at some point (can you tell the difference between all the insurance comparison sites apart from meerkats, opera singers or Paul Daniels?), but until then could someone please invent a comparison site for the comparison sites?

Louise Restell is a legal blogger. This post first appeared on the QualitySolicitors website.