His roll call of exactly why lawyers are still, on the whole, distrusted by consumers was depressingly familiar: hourly billing, high prices, a lack of transparency, the language used, the location of offices, inconvenient opening times and poor customer service. And yet, bizarrely, there are law firms that still think they can count on customer loyalty.
Still, it’s not all bad. It’s worth remembering, despite the lack of innovation, continued complexity and seemingly unending preponderance of legal jargon, just how far we have come since my days of standing on platforms on behalf of Which? telling lawyers how out-of-touch and antiquated their business practices were.
This was 2004, when complaints about solicitors were still dealt with by the Law Society and there were no independent regulators. Alternative business structures, online legal services and even QualitySolicitors were a distant dream (or nightmare, depending on your point of view).
I’ll confess I knew little about the legal profession, but that probably made me quite well qualified to see how much it needed to change. I had only had to use a lawyer for buying and selling property (a small flat and a terrace house in case that makes me sound like some sort of magnate).
The first time I needed conveyancing, I had gone to a high street firm and honesty felt as if I’d gone back in time. There was a cavernous high-ceilinged reception area that wasn’t overwarm and echoed a bit, a dusty rust-brown carpet and piles of paper everywhere. The receptionists were friendly enough but did little to dispel the impression I was in another world.
On entering the solicitor’s office I was even more unsettled. There was dark wood everywhere, more paper, files stacked ceiling high and a leather-topped desk with no sign of a computer (this was 1998 but even so). That the solicitor himself, though sat in a high-backed wood and leather chair, looked even more out of place than I felt did not particularly soften the effect.
All the same, it didn’t occur to me at all that it could or should be any different. Lawyers and the legal profession generally somehow seemed to suit the stuck-in-the-past thing they had going on. The conveyancing was, of course, fine, so nothing to worry about.
But it was slightly unnerving to find myself paying for something when I had no idea what it was. This served to reinforce the view I am afraid to say I had then, that lawyers were in some way more intelligent and cleverer than the rest of us, professionals we should hold in high esteem and defer to on pretty much everything.
Had I actually known any lawyers at the time I am fairly sure I would not have retained this view for long. They are, of course, the same as the rest of us, just with a finely honed problem-solving ability, a greater attention to detail and a paucity of social skills.
And then I went to work for Which? and discovered that I had been one of the lucky ones.
Which? research found two thirds of people weren’t given any sort of indication as to how long their case would take and more than half hadn’t received any cost estimate. Even when they were given this information up front, it proved to be almost negligently inaccurate and over 50 per cent of people said they weren’t kept up to date about the progress of their case.
Not surprisingly, one in six weren’t happy with the service they received. You can spin this any way you like, but having 16 per cent of your customers saying they aren’t happy is not something to be proud of and probably, in the medium term, renders your business unsustainable.
Lawyers may find it hard to believe, but good customer service is the same all over, whoever you are and whatever you are buying. The law may be more complicated than buying a tin of beans but the principles are the same: value for money, good-enough quality, accessibility, convenience and choice.
It is pretty obvious that by this measure the legal market was in dire need of reform. Fortunately, Which? and the other consumer organisations weren’t alone in wanting to see that happen and the campaign was buoyed along by a very supportive government. Somehow, and with quite a few battle scars, we managed to drag the legal profession into the 20th, if not the 21st, century, albeit with a lot of kicking and screaming.
I suspect the next bit, the really innovative, creative, revolutionary bit, will happen much more quickly and leave more solicitors in its wake gasping for air than all the changes so far. As another legal visionary, Professor Richard Susskind, also said last week (although not for the first time):
‘if we can see the day when the average desktop computer has more processing power than all of humanity put together, it might be time for lawyers to rethink the way they draft documents. It just cannot be that the Internet is transforming corners of society and the economy and yet it doesn’t apply to lawyers’.
He also spoke of the ‘more for less challenge’ (he has warned of fees being cut by 50 per cent) and explained how alternative offerings so far have not been terribly radical but merely a repackaging of the traditional way of doing things.
Susskind has proved to be right in a lot of his predictions so far and I feel somewhat vindicated in having been a bit of a groupie since I first heard him talk on the future of lawyers at an Epoq event in a Vauxhall penthouse in 2004 (yes really). It would be a brave lawyer, or a very pigheaded one, who would bet against him being right this time too.