Here I look at two recent and helpful publications, and given the source of those publications, those are slightly surprising words from me!
The Legal Services Consumer Panel Tracker Survey 2019 makes interesting reading. This year’s report is more fact focused. Its findings stem from a YouGov survey of 3,589 users of legal services over the last two years. This is a significant sample.
This strongly anti-lawyer body finally appears to have recognised that “shopping around” is often a bad thing for clients, as price comparison sites are notoriously misleading. By definition, any lawyer trying to get work by being cheap is unlikely to be much good, just as in any other area of life. This is reflected in the fact that 77% of clients find it easy to understand price information from lawyers. However, this drops to just 38% amongst those shopping around finding it easy to make a comparison between different providers, sharply down from 58% last year.
These figures need to be treated with a little caution as, to put it bluntly, those shopping around online for legal services are less likely to appreciate and understand the importance of quality and reputation. Another factor is that in the United States and the United Kingdom, but almost nowhere else, it is seen as fashionable to shop around for price, rather than seeking quality. There may therefore be over-reporting. The French, for example, do not boast about cheap meat full of water from a supermarket.
The proportion of clients receiving a face-to-face service has remained the same for the last five years, at around 45%. The increase in services provided online largely reflects a drop in legal services being delivered by post. In other words, postal delivery of legal service has switched to online delivery, but face-to-face contact remains as popular as ever.
Client satisfaction is extraordinarily high, with 87% saying that they were satisfied with the outcome of their legal matter and 84% being satisfied with the service they received. Online satisfaction was the lowest, at 78%, compared with 88% for those receiving service face to face or over the phone or through the post.
In 2012, 14% of people received legal services through legal aid, a trade union or their employer. This is now down to 5%; just 1% received legal services through their trade union. Interestingly, as many people had their legal services paid for by their employer as by a trade union.
73% of clients said that they had a wide range of choice.
The most important factors when choosing a provider were:
- Reputation: 79%.
- Price: 72%.
- Specialism: 69%.
Interestingly, reputation is rising in percentage terms as the most important factor for clients.
Overall, 51% of clients had a fixed fee arrangement and the highest areas were:
Significantly, of general areas of work, accident and injury claims rate very poorly, both in terms of perception of choice and value for money (43%), even though virtually all such work is conducted on a no win, no fee basis, and the client nearly always wins. My guess is that that reflects the fact that most such work is done without any face-to-face contact between the lawyer and the client, and that those injured feel pushed, often illegally by claims management companies, to particular solicitors. This is a classic case of the illusion of choice; seemingly endless competition, but in fact poor choice, poor service and poor quality.
It is remarkable that in an area where clients do not pay upfront and virtually always get compensation, the evidence is:
“Accident and injury claims is the service area users rate as having the lowest choice and value for money.”
The survey covers all providers and not just solicitors, but 64% of those surveyed used a solicitor. 77% of those who used a solicitor chose a small local firm, with just 8% choosing a large corporate firm and only 7% a national brand with a local office.
Reputation, price, specialism and the convenience of a local office are all considered more important by clients now than when the surveys started in 2012. Under half of those surveyed were influenced by a quality mark and less than one third by the ability to track their matter online.
The results of this survey are excellent news for small local firms with a good reputation. I believe that they are what used to be known as “high street firms”.
Maybe I am softening, or maybe the regulators are waking up, but this too is a welcome and very useful report giving specific examples of good, and bad, service, as well as helpful advice.
The ombudsman advises keeping a record of the information displayed on your website, and when and how it changes, so that you know what the client saw at the time, rather than what is up now. Much of my costs and funding litigation work arises from solicitors failing to print and keep key documents, such as the retainer and conditional fee agreement. Paperless offices are the ultimate madness as far as solicitors are concerned. Maybe one in one hundred can keep a fully accurate online record.
Print it, keep it! must be the message in relation to any costs, retaining and funding matters.
“The consumer [client] should know where they stand when they walk through the door and not hear of any charge, if there is one, for the first time at the consultation”.
The report gives an example of a fixed fee by a firm instructed at the last minute in relation to a tribunal matter. It was adjourned due to the other side’s failures. The firm charged a fixed fee, plus an extra fee for the extra hearing. The ombudsman halved the extra fee. Had this been made clear in advance, that is, that there would be an extra fee for an extra hearing, then there would have been no problem.
Estimates and fixed fees
“We know an estimate differs from a fixed fee, but not all customers [the clients] understand this distinction. We therefore look for evidence that this has been explained. An estimate being exceeded would not automatically constitute poor service, but we would normally expect to see reasons for this and look for evidence that the customer had been warned beforehand that this would happen. We would expect lawyers to know the estimate is being reached and warn the customers accordingly, as the customer may want to change instructions on how to proceed, in light of this information.”
The price should always include VAT, and if it is net of VAT then the client must be told how much they will have to pay, including VAT. If not, the ombudsman is likely to order the client to pay only the lower, VAT exclusive, figure.
This term should never be used as it “means almost nothing to anyone other than lawyers.”
When the complaint is that the bill is excessive, it is normally a reflection that the client was not expecting the bill to be so high; thus, it is really about costs information rather than the costs themselves.
Failure to keep clients up to date with costs information is common and can be avoided by having a monthly review system on every file, with costs information being a mandatory matter to be dealt with.
The ombudsman states that a common reason for a complaint is poor billing. It also states, reasonably, that if the ombudsman has difficulty understanding the basis and meaning of the eventual bill, then that is likely to amount to poor service.
Again, in my experience, very poor, short, barely comprehensible bills are very common.
The ombudsman states:
“If a lawyer produces a bill which says ‘work done between 24 July and 18 August’ and does not provide any further detail, we would consider this vague. We would want to know what the nature of the work was and will ask the lawyer to produce his or her ledgers as evidence that it had been done.”
I am not sure how ledgers would show what work was done, but the general point is clear.
“The Ombudsman cannot, and will not, interfere in a lawyer’s decision to enforce a bill while a complaint is ongoing. However, where we consider that any action was unreasonable, it will be reflected in the decision we make and any remedy we order.”
The ombudsman has a range of further guidance on its website, which might be useful to refer to:
- Guide to good complaints handling provides an overview of how to respond to complaints.
- Our approach to determining complaints looks at the factors taken into account when the ombudsman investigates and the questions it asks to determine if the service has been reasonable.
- Our approach to putting things right looks at the things the ombudsman can do to resolve the situation if it decides that the service was unreasonable.
- Scheme Rules FAQ is a set of common questions about the scheme rules.
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