My first brush with lawyers’ attitudes towards technology was so astonishing it bears repeating. I was discussing solicitors’ readiness for e-conveyancing with HM Land Registry. The first stage, apparently, was to make sure all firms involved had a computer in the office, followed closely by ensuring they were all connected to the Internet. This was 2005.
Thankfully most law firms have now, at least, made it to the second base. I even know lawyers who know how to surf the web and use their smart phones. But the law, it seems, is still lagging behind the rest of us when it comes to recognising and embracing the potential offered by technology.
The Legal Services Board (LSB) has done research showing the Internet revolution has ‘yet to reach legal services’ leading to a significant shortfall in the amount and quality of legal information available for consumers online. It found consumers were often ‘swamped’ by information and gave up before they had finished their search.
The report said that while the Internet had empowered consumers in many areas of life ‘this revolution…at least on the evidence of our group discussions, had yet to reach legal services…the Internet was found to be far less help than consumers have come to expect’.
In response, the LSB said there was real potential for an official and independent ‘legal advice and guidance’ site. Putting aside my ‘I told you so’ that dates back at least six years, yes, that’s exactly what consumers need. The LSB is quite right to make a comparison with health issues, where consumers ‘knew you could refer to NHS Direct online, and it wouldn’t lie to you’.
There is, of course, a key difference in that health care is provided by the state and is, for the time being at least, free at the point of delivery. Nonetheless, in terms of its importance, impact, frequency and complexity it surely has a lot in common with the law. But whereas medical professionals had to come down from their high horse some time ago, much of the legal profession are still firmly in the saddle.
It probably comes as no surprise, then, that this doesn’t seem to have been the prompt for a lot of hand wringing from the profession. This, despite the LSB's report being only the latest in a series lamenting the immature relationship the legal professional has with technology.
In February, a mystery shopping exercise by the Legal Services Consumer Panel found law firms were ‘ignoring leads’ that come through comparison websites. And only last week another report found that many law firms have even failed to ensure their websites can be read by mobile devices.
You couldn’t make it up. For some reason, much of the legal profession still seems to hold the belief that keeping consumers confused about the law and making it impossible for them to make an informed choice about legal services is good for business. The alternative means they might have to be more competitive and work harder to get and keep clients, but no-one said being a lawyer was easy.
The LSB says there was strong support from consumers for an NHS Direct or TripAdvisor-style website to help provide them with legal information, support or advice. Sadly, but not surprisingly, no one in the research groups mentioned Advice Now, the website run by the Advice Services Alliance or Advice Guide from Citizens Advicee.
There are two completely different, although not mutually exclusive, issues here. One is the provision of reliable, accurate information about the law and legal services that could act as a first port of call for anyone searching the web and help them decide whether or not they need legal advice or can use other DIY or free options.
The second is a tool to help consumers choose and access a legal service provider, whether that’s a face-to-face meeting with a lawyer in a high-street firm or a product they can buy online. It should, of course, include consumer-reviews.
Naturally, in its typically receptive style, the Law Society still believes comparison websites, a key tool for consumer choice in other areas, are open to abuse. Its suggestion is that the professional bodies themselves could produce and moderate ‘reliable’ sites, the definition of ‘reliable’, I assume, to mean only solicitors and barristers need apply.
I can’t believe it is beyond the wit of people who know how to do these things to develop a comparison site that only allows reviews from those who have actually used it to purchase a product or service. It is also not inconceivable that there is some sort of matrix (or whatever) that would enable sorting according to different criteria: the cheapest option for a basic conveyance; more emphasis on experience and reputation for a complicated employment case.
Mind you, even comparison sites may be old hat before long. Legal Futures reported last week that there has been a 663% increase in people using Twitter to ask for recommendations around common professional services, with demand for solicitors only second to web designers. Ten million of us are on the micro-blogging site - that’s a lot of potential referrals.
The research, conducted for Orange Business, suggested solicitors ‘may not be aware of the fees they could be missing out on by not engaging with the public and other businesses via Twitter’. I’ll bet they aren’t, and even if they’ve heard of it, I can’t imagine many of them are prepared to ‘showcase their expertise and accessibility over Twitter’.
Which is a shame. Expressing yourself in 140 characters is a skill many lawyers could do well to learn.