Solicitors from hell - you can run but you can't hide
I've spent quite a lot of time being not very nice about solicitors. Over the years I've been working in the legal sector, first at Which?, then at a national law firm and for the Law Society, I've branded them arrogant, patronising, out-of-touch and overpriced. However, despite this general antipathy towards the profession, I have never been a fan of the Solicitors from Hell website. Not surprisingly, neither is the Law Society. So at least that's one thing we agree on.
The website, set up six years ago by Rick Kordowski, enables the public to post anonymous complaints about solicitors. It has a jolly graphic of the devil in a suit standing amidst billowing flames. Kordowski has been sued for libel at least 16 times and owes over £150,000 in unpaid damages. Last week, the Society sent him letter of claim on behalf of over 300 individual solicitors and the profession as a whole, demanding he close it down or face an action for defamation, harassment and breach of the Data Protection Act.
In the past, Kordowski has been unrepentant - he told the Independent last year that such threats only added to his determination to expose the rogues in the legal profession. But is this really the best way to do it?
I can completely understand the motives behind setting up the website. Who hasn't wanted to scream in frustration at professionals of one sort or another at some point in their life? This desire is likely to be compounded if it's a legal professional who's got your goat as we tend to use them rarely and only in times of stress: a divorce, house move, death or being made redundant.
At Which? I was inundated with dreadful stories about lives that had been blighted by dodgy solicitors and a sham of a complaints service that failed to respond to their cries for help. The worst part of it was I couldn't do anything, at least not in the immediate term. It would take another two years for the Legal Services Act to become law and a further four for the new independent complaints system to come into being.
So I sympathise with the desire of many of these people to let off steam on a website. Certainly, the Law Society shouldn't just condemn it without trying to find out what has driven people to it in the first place and helping firms to put that right . However vexatious a lawyer feels a client has become, simply ignoring them is not going to make them go away.
And I don't have any compunction about naming and shaming solicitors who consistently give poor service or bad advice. But there is a legitimate question about how this is done and where you draw the line for publishing the names of firms with complaints upheld against them: for example, is it just a numerical value or should it be based on the substance of a complaint?
The trouble with Solicitors from Hell is it makes no such distinction and so gives little indication as to whether problems are endemic or one-offs (not that this is an excuse, but anyone can make a mistake). The number of problems registered for each firm is unverifiable and so completely unreliable - I was rather alarmed to discover I could indicate that I'd had a problem with a firm I've never heard of with one click of the mouse. Furthermore, Kordowski is very open about the fact that firms can pay him to take complaints down and complainants can pay to ensure they stay up. Not terribly informative then.
But it would be wrong for the Society to try and ban such sites altogether. Developing empowered consumers was part of the rationale behind the Legal Services Act, in particular alternative business structures. Empowerment means making sure consumers are informed about the type of legal services they need, where they can get that service, and what to expect from it. A review or comparison website could encourage this, although contradictions will abound, as comedian Michael McIntyre has explained about TripAdvisor:
You find a hotel you like "and it looks amazing. Big five-star reviews, five star, five star, paradise, it says, heaven, the best hotel you'll ever stay in. 'Oh, it was just the most miraculous two weeks of our lives. We were picked up from the airport on a unicorn, which flew us to our destination, which was so wonderfully beautiful, the beds were so comfortable, the fish would just come up and sacrifice themselves on the plate' . . . And you're sitting there at home, and you think, 'This is it, darling. This is the one we should go to – everybody loves this hotel.' But you keep searching, and you'll find it, page 36, one star. 'The waiter slapped my wife in the face.'"
Ultimately these sites just give opinions, although there is clearly a difference between a TripAdvisor for solicitors (BriefAdvisor?) and Solicitors from Hell. The point is, whatever the outcome of the Law Society's action and the fate of Solicitors from Hell, and whatever information the Ombudsman finally decides to publish about complaints, there is no longer anywhere for solicitors who give poor service to hide. Jolly good thing too.