Fighting to retain standards
New price transparency rules could lead to a race to the bottom, warns David Kirwan
Lawyers’ billable hours have long been the butt of many a joke – and in some cases, for good reason.
It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to consider how a client with limited legal knowledge must feel on being presented with an eye-watering bill, with little more explanation of what their hard-earned cash has bought than a vague reference to the work completed.
Historically, legal firms have offered little or no pricing information, leading to a clear misalignment between what clients believe they are paying for and what is actually included in the transaction.
Add into this mix of discontent a few Competition and Market Authority statistics about consumers wanting better access to information before choosing their legal service provider (85%) as well as information about price (53%) and the quality of the service they would receive (37%).
Slowly but surely a picture starts to form of a disgruntled consumer who feels powerless to make informed choices about which legal service provider they choose.
From that viewpoint, it’s clear that the SRA’s ‘Looking to the Future’ programme – and more specifically the recently introduced price transparency rules that set out a number of directions regarding the publication of pricing information on law rms’ websites – is based on a sound argument that law firms must become more transparent if they are to survive.
We’re living in an age of austerity, when money is tight and clients are constantly looking for a better deal. Inspired by consumer champions and price comparison websites, many people won’t buy so much as travel insurance for a week abroad without rst comparing costs.
Why, then, should we expect them to think differently when it comes to shelling out what can run to thousands of pounds in legal bills? Well, there are many reasons actually.
Price v skills
LSB chief executive Neil Buckley might have welcomed the SRA’s e orts to improve transparency due to its assistance in helping “to promote competition and contribute to improving access to justice”.
Will this really improve access to justice when the consumer is likely to be heavily influenced by price, rather than by skill and expertise, which is undoubtedly more diffcult to measure?
To its credit, when the consultation was launched, the Law Society was quick to fight back. It flagged up the diffculties the implementation of the rules would pose to firms that didn’t have either the capacity or the funds to update their websites accordingly.
In addition, it commissioned the first consumer behaviour research of its kind in the UK to demonstrate that, rather than helping consumers, publishing information on websites could be misleading to them.
After all, the rules have not specified a pricing model or display format, so would-be consumers could find it very diffcult to compare prices like-for-like.
There is no MoneySuperMarket-style website to visit, displaying law rms and their prices alongside each other; one thing at least, for which we must be grateful.
However, as with so many changes imposed upon us within the legal sector, we are where we are. Now firms need to start considering how they’re going to make the most of the situation.
We must review, for example, our enquiries process. How do we respond to consumers who have expressed an initial interest by visiting our websites? Will an auto-response email be enough? Is a telephone call too intrusive? Are we absolutely sure our information-gathering procedures are GDPR-compliant? How do we convince consumers of our worth? Should client case studies become a greater part of our online presence? Is greater investment in PR required?
It may well be that general practices at least can look to their conveyancing teams – who have had to adapt their pricing models and become more transparent about what they offer in order to survive – for lessons learnt.
How we as an industry respond, and the way in which we convince consumers that it’s worth potentially paying more to receive a high-quality service, will be crucial if we are to retain the high standards for which this country’s legal sector has become known – rather than embark on a race to the bottom of the pile.
David Kirwan is managing partner at Kirwans