The SRA is conducting a pilot scheme which aims to further improve the information available to the public when choosing a legal services provider. Pearl Moses poses some questions to Tracy Vegro on what firms might expect
PM: Hi Tracy – thanks for coming and for answering our questions. This was recently a hot topic at our annual Risk and Compliance conference at which the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) spoke, so I thought we could use this space to give our members more of an idea of what’s planned.
I understand that the SRA are running some pilots with law firms around using comparison websites and engaging with online reviews. Could you explain a bit what this involves, the parameters of the pilot and how this might affect firms?
TV: Research has shown most people don’t use the services of a solicitor when they have a legal problem because they expect solicitors will be too expensive and comparison information about the services offered by law firms will be too hard to find.
We introduced rules that require firms to publish prices and details for some common services. Independent research has shown this is already making a difference – for example consumers are finding solicitor firms were less costly than they expected.
But price information is only the beginning. People tell us they want to know about quality of service as well so our pilot – in partnership with the Council for Licensed Conveyancers, CILEx Regulation and Bar Standards Board – is looking at what the key indicators of quality in legal services might be, and how to make this information available to support comparison.
The first part of our pilot brings together comparison website providers and law firms to help them develop ideas. We’re asking the firms to both engage with these sites and to encourage clients to post reviews on them. We then speak to the firms to see what they’ve learnt. We’re doing this through both individual meetings and wider roundtables (held online, of course). During the second phase, we’ll explore what further objective indicators of quality could be shared that would support the public to find the help they need.
PM: If firms do engage with comparison websites, will they still be complying with rule 5.1 of the Code for Solicitors on referral fees? Are there any other regulations to be aware of?
TV: In the majority of cases, rule 5.1 is not triggered by dealing with comparison websites and their typical ways of working. In essence, the site simply hosts your company information and lets people post reviews. The fee you pay is a subscription to feature on the site.
Even where you pay for the site to generate quotes on your behalf, that’s also fine, as you are paying the same fee whether or not the customer does anything further with that information.
Where you do need to be mindful is if you agree to pay per converted lead, or if you pay for the site to provide you with details of a case/enquirer who you then proactively contact yourself. In such cases you would need to be aware of your obligations under the rules, for example making sure the client is aware of what arrangement was in place. That’s always been the key thing – transparency so that clients know exactly what’s going on.
Working with customer review sites is also fine under our advertising and unsolicited approaches rules – you just need to make sure information you provide to the sites is fair and accurate.
Finally, you need to stay mindful of your obligations to maintain professionalism and public trust in the profession. For example, you should not put pressure or place undue influence on clients to post positive reviews or remove negative ones. That could represent a breach of our rules.
PM: Ultimately client reviews are about quality. Are clients best placed to judge the technical quality of the work involved in their retainer?
TV: From the perspective of the client, law is no different to any other service – potential customers seek out recommendations from other customers to give them a feel for what it’s like to use that provider. Most reviews are general and discuss customer service and clients are clearly able to judge the quality of the service.
PM: If a firm does decide to engage with comparison websites, how do they know which one to choose? Should they engage only with one or with several? And how can a firm verify the information that they put out?
TV: The first thing to do is consider what will work best for you and your customer base. What do you want to get out of using a comparison website, and what would you want potential clients to know about you?
There are lots of different types of sites offering different services, so it’s important that you know what you want before approaching one. Some websites list all firms regulated by the SRA and some enable consumers to create a listing for a firm they have employed. You might like to think about whether you can afford not to engage with these providers if your current clients and potential clients are using them.
What we know is that providers are just as keen to learn and engage as you are, so talk to them about what they do and how it might help. You will also find that they care just as much as you about accuracy of data, and about challenging inaccurate reviews where, for example, someone has posted anonymously and might not have been a client of yours.
All of those who are part of our pilot exercise have signed up to a voluntary code of conduct we created to address many of the concerns law firms have.
PM: Should firms respond to negative reviews? Are there particular pointers on how to deal with hostile reviews? And why should they be given credibility when many people come to solicitors with problems that may not always be resolved satisfactorily?
TV: The key to responding to a negative review is to retain empathy and concern for the client – whatever the rights and wrongs, they are clearly dissatisfied. So highlight your usual high levels of customer service, maybe converting a negative review into a selling point.
We recommend that you respond to all negative reviews, and also positive reviews too – research shows that people trust online reviews that have been responded to, and convert to becoming customers of those businesses nearly 85% more often.
Ultimately, you want your online reviews to reflect the experiences of your clients. A majority of reviews from happy clients will outweigh isolated comments from those who are dissatisfied so it is in your interest to encourage all your clients to post reviews but, as above, it’s important not to pressurise them on what to write!
PM: Many firms have invested heavily in their own websites – would it be sufficient to just publish reviews there?
TV: We would always encourage this but do remember that the only potential clients looking at them are already aware of your existence. If you want to expand your visibility, you need to do so where potential customers are looking when they are making decisions on which providers to engage.
By making key information on the services you provide accessible on comparison websites, you are placing yourself in the immediate shop window where many potential customers are visiting as they shop around.
PM: Many small firms feel they already have high outgoings to make sure they are compliant. If they can’t afford comparison websites, are there free ones or are there other ways for them to engage with consumers? Similarly, other firms feel they don’t have time to engage. What should they do?
TV: The approach is very much a commercial matter for law firms. Engaging with comparison sites directly increases your opportunities to win new business, and while there are costs associated with engaging with some comparison sites, others are free. It’s also cost-free to encourage clients to post reviews to sites that feature businesses without requiring them to subscribe. We have already heard a range of examples of where firms are actively engaging with comparison sites without spending a penny.
Many comparison sites provide free-to-use options to help firms manage client reviews – so while there are some resource implications internally for a firm in keeping on top of this, the benefits could be significant. Some sites even automatically notify you when a client leaves a review which can reduce the burden of having to monitor for new posts yourself.
Our advice would be to invest what time you can spare in exploring the options. Contact a couple of providers and ask them how they work and what packages are available. You may well be surprised at what you find.
PM: Finally Tracy, is this pilot ongoing and, if so, how can firms get involved?
TV: It certainly is ongoing. We originally set out a six-month span for the first phase of this work, but this is an area we will be continuing to explore and develop approaches in moving further forward. And we’d welcome more firms coming on board. They can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or look at our website for more information.