Shop around and you might find a lawyer you like
This morning I finally got around to opening my car insurance renewal quote. It was not a nice shock over the cornflakes. Unbelievably the cost for insuring my not-very-large car has increased nearly 100 per cent in 12 months. Fortunately, as any savvy consumer knows, and as certain cute mammals in clothes or moustachioed opera singers can tell you, I can find cheaper car insurance online (although choosing which comparison website to use will probably take longer than eating my breakfast).
According to the Legal Services Board consumer panel tracker survey, 56% of us shop around for car insurance but only 19% of us shop around for a lawyer. And yet we could be spending much more money for a much more important service. So why, when we’ve become such discerning consumers for just about every other product and service, do we plump for the first lawyer we find after a Google search?
The same survey goes on to show 48% of consumers say they have very little knowledge of legal services. I am quite sure this isn’t because we aren’t capable of understanding what lawyers do. But it has rather suited lawyers to build up something of a barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’ which, until recently consumers have had little choice but to buy into.
Doctors used to hold a similar venerated position. We didn’t choose our doctor, we just dragged ourselves to the nearest surgery and accepted what we were told. Patients now, quite rightly, expect to be consulted and listened to regarding their care and can exercise choice about where and how to be treated (up to a point).
Despite what the legal profession would have us think, there is no reason for much of their work, certainly the very consumer-focused stuff, to be shrouded in mystery. I don’t know what lawyers are afraid of: I might surf the net and consult with the pharmacist about my sore throat, but I am not going to conduct my own open-heart surgery. Equally, I might decide to do my own will but I am far less likely to want to conduct my own employment discrimination case.
Assuming we can debunk the myth that only clever people can understand the law, what else is holding consumers back from shopping around? Well, lawyers don’t have a reputation for being the most approachable of professionals. If you think someone is going to talk in legalese and look down their nose at you, it’s going to be quite a challenge to get out your pre-prepared questions, take notes and say ‘thanks, I’ll get back to you’.
This becomes a less daunting proposition if you can compare lawyers online, but only a worthwhile one if there is a discernable difference between them. Lawyers may think this is yet another reason to hide under the duvet and pretend it’s still the 1950s. Not so: give the consumer what they want and they are more likely to choose you. And the consumer panel research shows consumers who feel they’ve had a choice of provider are generally happier bunnies all round. Win win.
Despite legal commentators, including me (if I can presume to be such a thing) getting breathless with excitement at the prospect of big brands entering the legal market, research by Jures last year showed the most important factors for consumers are quality of service and paying a fixed price for work. It’s also well known that consumers are far more likely to choose a lawyer through personal recommendation (44% according to Jures) than pretty much any other method.
But it would be naïve to assume that brands have no place in this market, they just need to embody what consumers are looking for. As Craig Holt of QualitySolicitors puts it ‘we are conscious that one of the reasons why law firms are vulnerable in this market is there is an apprehension on the part of most people about using a law firm. Everything we’re trying to do….is to try and break down that apprehension’. So the QS proposition is a straightforward one: no hidden costs; first consultation free; same day response; direct lawyer contact.
Part of the reason consumers have been happy to avoid shopping around for legal services is that they assume all lawyers are competent. This is probably reflected in the Jures statistic that 21% of people still have a ‘family solicitor’. Another recent survey conducted by www.personalinjurylawyers.co.uk, also found that more than half of those questioned who had used a solicitor in the past three years admitted they did so without checking if they had the correct qualifications.
I am not a fan of quality marks for legal services (and the consumer panel suggests consumers aren’t that bothered either with only 5% recognising legal quality marks), but there is certainly a need for consumers to start asking questions about claims of specialisation. Heart surgeons don’t do chemotherapy, so why on earth would we expect the person who did our parent’s conveyancing to handle our divorce (and equally, why on earth do some lawyers still insist on being a ‘jack of all trades’?)
For too long the legal profession have got away with pretending we have no choice of provider. Consumers aren’t stupid. Most of us feel able, with a bit of information and guidance, to choose investment products, credit cards, insurance, cars, computers, doctors, schools and a whole range of other complicated and important products and services. It’s about time we felt empowered to ask lawyers what we’ll get for our money. And as well as getting a better service, we might even find a lawyer we like.