At the start of July 2021, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) reported that proactively publishing information on key indicators of service quality, such as customer reviews, helps the public when they are looking for a legal services provider and should help firms win more business.

Its research has often shown that the quality of the service trumps price when potential clients choose a legal services provider, while finding reliable information on quality can be challenging.

Piloting progress

Some months prior, the SRA started a pilot involving law firms and comparison website providers. Working alongside the Council for Licensed Conveyancers, CILEx Regulation and the Bar Standards Board, the pilot aimed to encourage greater use of online information in the legal sector, including through comparison websites and online review platforms. The initial focus was on conveyancing and employment law services – two of the practice areas required to publish pricing information under the SRA’s transparency rules. The SRA decided to extend the pilot beyond the original six months it planned for and to more firms.

The SRA offers an information sharing service enabling websites that publish information on legal service providers to access and display publicly available regulatory information on firms the SRA regulates. It also developed a voluntary code of conduct for comparison websites taking part in the pilot, to encourage independent, transparent and fair conduct to consumers and legal services providers.

Sharing is caring

The SRA stated that actively encouraging clients to leave an online review, for example, by providing them with a link to a review website, will demonstrate that firms care about what their clients think and their experiences and increase the number of reviews available to prospective clients.

The regulator added that by welcoming and responding professionally to feedback, firms can show openness and transparency about their clients’ experiences and that “this can create a good impression for other prospective clients and help you secure repeat business from those clients leaving reviews.”

Considering confidentiality 

The SRA has indicated that a firm may respond to and comment on an online review left by a current or former client, provided it does not disclose confidential or privileged information. It also suggests that if the firm is unsure, it may simply acknowledge the review and contact the client directly about their feedback.

The SRA has published guidance called 'Confidentiality of client information', saying it will help firms understand their obligations regarding keeping clients’ information confidential.

There are, however, other ethical considerations firms will need to consider in relation to online reviews from clients. These appear absent from the review rhetoric being championed by the SRA, the Legal Services Board and Competition & Markets Authority.

There will be instances where clients cannot provide details about themselves or their case on a public platform, or will simply not want to. This may include where a client has agreed to confidentiality clauses in respect of a settlement or where revealing they have received advice from a specific legal services provider could pose a risk to their safety.

Lawyers will need to be alive to the risks to their clients, in order to be able to advise them appropriately, before they engage with online reviews.

Responding constructively to constructive criticism

The SRA recommends firms “respond to all negative reviews” and that “reviews are more balanced when a business can concede it may have made mistakes but has made attempts to address them”. The regulator adds: “Negative online reviews can provide opportunities for firms to concede that it has made a mistake, but show what it has done to address them. This can be powerful information for prospective clients.”

Where the SRA is silent is in specifying whether it will pay active attention to negative reviews from clients or responses from firms.

In contrast to the SRA’s recommendations, when the American Bar Association issued a formal opinion for US Attorneys on how to respond to negative reviews earlier in the year it suggested: “As a best practice, lawyers should consider not responding to a negative post or review because doing so may draw attention to it and invite further response from an unhappy critic.”

How regulated professionals in this jurisdiction will decide how to respond to negative reviews will no doubt be case-specific. What the SRA has made clear is that when responding to reviews, those it regulates must be careful to maintain professionalism, be aware of and act in accordance with the obligations placed on them by the Standards and Regulations. It also directs individuals to its warning notice on “offensive communications”, which aims to help those regulated by the SRA understand their obligations and how to comply with them.

The SRA does not expect that firms will pressure clients or website providers to retract a negative review or one it disagrees with. The principles require firms and their workers to act in a way that upholds public trust and confidence in the solicitors’ profession and in legal services provided by authorised persons (Principle 2). Regulation 1.2 of both the Code of Conduct for Solicitors, RELs and RFLs and the Code of Conduct for Firms stipulates that regulated individuals do not abuse their position by taking unfair advantage of clients or others.

Spotting a fake

Where firms believe an online review is fake and is not from a current or former client, they can contact the website hosting the review to ask them to follow the procedures they have for dealing with such reviews.

Dealing with defamation

Where firms believe a review has been left by a client and that it is defamatory it can:

·        do nothing and wait for other clients to leave reviews on the same website, providing potential clients with a richer picture of views and experiences;

·        contact the website operator to explain and enquire about procedures available to remove the review;

·        respond to the review;

·        take legal action against the reviewer

The SRA reminds firms that where they do pursue legal action, they must continue to behave professionally and in accordance with their regulatory obligations. It also suggests potential clients could be deterred from instructing a firm if they feel it has been heavy-handed with a dissatisfied client.

Practice makes perfect

The recent case of Summerfield Browne v Waymouth [2021] EWHC 85 (QB) provides an example of the issues, responses and possible outcomes for others to consider.

The law firm involved brought a defamation claim against a former client who left a Trustpilot review. In a summary judgment by Master Cook, a ‘substantial’ number of clients were said to have been put off by the review and general damages (totalling £25,000) and costs were awarded against the former client. While Trustpilot was also ordered to remove the defamatory review, the online platform, which was not a party to the proceedings, said it would challenge the court’s order if it was served with it.

Trustpilot was reported to have stated that it had not been contacted by the firm, adding that: “While the circumstances of this case are highly unusual, the outcome will ultimately not lead to a positive position for anyone – consumers or businesses – and it is much better for businesses to engage, respond and improve upon the feedback they receive, rather than using legal action to silence consumers.”

Whilst the positive positions work themselves out, what is clear is that rehearsing the right responses is something all actors on the online stage could benefit from.

Emma Walker is an associate solicitor in the regulatory and disciplinary team at Leigh Day leighday.co.uk

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