Sticking your head in the sand doesn't stop the tide coming in

Consumers, it seems, still don’t trust lawyers. In fact, depressingly, while consumer satisfaction with the value for money of legal services has risen over the past year, trust in the profession has actually fallen. The 47% it started at wasn’t exactly remarkable, but it’s now only 43%. That may be more than for some professions, notably journalists, politicians and bankers, but it’s way behind doctors (80%) and teachers (68%).

Does it matter, as long as they keep on coming?  Well, once upon a time, possibly not, since consumers had little choice about where to go when they needed legal help, although even then it’s doesn’t say much for professional integrity. But the survey revealing this declining level of trust also showed that consumers are finally learning to exercise their buying power.

The Legal Services Consumer Panel says there are signs  more and more consumers are shopping around (22%, up from 19%) and demanding fixed-fee deals.  It also found evidence consumers are finding it easier to compare providers.  Nonetheless, satisfaction in relation to clarity of information about costs fell from just under 80% to 70% and, strangely, dissatisfied customers are more likely to do nothing.

It probably isn’t surprising that the picture is so mixed when the whole market is in a state of flux.  It is not just professionals who may be struggling to keep up with developments.  Many consumers won’t yet know there is now a dazzling panoply of options of legal provider and many of those that do may be nervous about dipping their toe in the water.

No doubt the unreconstructed corners of the profession will seize on the poll’s findings that the number of recent users of legal services who felt they were treated like an individual as opposed to ‘just another file’ was down five percentage points on last year.

Personally I am not surprised there are consumers who still feel their lawyer is indifferent to them when some attitudes seem not to have moved at all.  Take this comment on the Law Gazette coverage of the survey from ‘DomcCoop’ who felt Elizabeth Davies, the chair of the Consumer Panel, should ‘get out of her office and provide this service herself to all these poor customers’ (this was the polite bit).

I am sure Ms Davies doesn’t need me to defend her corner, but this just goes to show that there are still lawyers who clearly don’t understand they are providing a service.  An important, sometimes complicated and often fundamental service, but a service nonetheless.

Because it’s an infrequent, sometimes complicated and often very stressful purchase, consumers need to be supported in understanding their options and empowered to exercise them.  The profession and its regulators are on the whole, sadly, still useless in fulfilling that role.  That is why we need the Consumer Panel.

The recent call from both the Bar Council and the Bar Standards Board for the panel to be scrapped in three year’s time re-emphasises how the profession fundamentally misunderstands the consumer’s perspective of legal services.

It's disappointing, if predictable, that there are still lawyers labouring under the misplaced belief that the justice system and the legal market exist solely to provide them with a living.  Consumers (their insurers, or, in increasingly rare cases, the state) pay the bills and have a right to demand a high level of service and good value for money.  Brushing them off as ‘all these poor customers’ is not going to be the best approach.

The more lawyers continue to believe their problems are because, as one anonymous commenter on the Law Gazette article suggested, ‘we have allowed our power and prestige as a profession to run away’, the less likely they are to be able to respond in any meaningful way to the demands of newly empowered consumers.  It is not so much that lawyers have let their power slip away, as that they so blatantly misused it  consumers are now taking it off them.  As for 'prestige', well, I am trying not to laugh.

What lawyers are going to like even less, I suspect, is how consumer demands will change the future shape of the profession as a whole.  While there will always be clients needing to retain lawyers with specific expertise to do difficult legal work, they won’t want to continue to pay big fees for written and administrative work.

This doesn’t just mean lawyers will have to overcome their intrinsic reluctance to embrace new technologies that can deliver a lot more work in less time and at a substantially lower cost.  It should also lead to a change in the way lawyers are trained and regulated.

The Consumer Panel (or useless quango as DomcCoop likes to call it) has attacked the ‘GP-style’ training of lawyers for failing to respond to the diverse legal market and for being ‘in danger of providing adequate preparation for nothing instead of providing a readiness to tackle anything’.

It suggests instead that lawyers approved to practise would have limited permission to provide certain types of legal services, but would have to get separate authorisation to provide others.  This modular approach, if adopted, would mean the titles of ‘solicitor’ and ‘barrister’  become meaningless.

This strikes me as eminently sensible, which means it probably won’t happen.  While consumers do recognise these titles effectively as quality marks, they may not appreciate the differences or recognise that a solicitor, for example, may not always be the only, or even best, option for the service they need.

If I am moving house, I don’t need someone who also knows about personal injury or can conduct litigation, I just need an expert in conveyancing.  I don’t mind at all if that person is a solicitor or not,  so long as they are properly trained and regulated.  It may come as a surprise to many lawyers, but the most important thing for most consumers is getting the job done, on time, within budget and to a standard that is good enough.

Where does this all leave us?  On one side, a legal profession still littered with people gazing intently at their navels and a host of regulators and professional bodies playing a juvenile game of one-upmanship; on the other, dynamic firms and new providers pouncing on the open goal and consumers who are beginning to flex their muscles.  I know which side my money is on.

Posted in: Legal services

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