The 2016 Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) report found that ‘the legal services sector is not working well for individual consumers and small businesses. These consumers generally lack the experience and information they need to find their way around the legal services sector and to engage confidently with providers’. Stating too that clients find it difficult to ‘make informed choices because there is very little transparency about price, service and quality’.
The CMA encourages regulators to promote the use of independent feedback platforms to help consumers understand the quality of service offered by competing providers, and “to facilitate the development of a dynamic intermediary market”.
However, the ‘so-called’ independent feedback platforms do not seem particularly independent. Savvy marketing managers will encourage satisfied clients to post reviews on the likes of Facebook and Google, rather than all clients. No lawyer who submits their credentials for review by the legal directories includes a client as a referee unless they are confident they will say something positive.
Some review websites are financed by law firm subscription fees and act as a tool for law firms to generate high rankings from satisfied customers only. Of the 151 law firms on Trustpilot, 142 have got four stars and above, out of a total of five stars. One has to wonder about the statistical robustness.
Other review services such as LegallyBetter are free to join, but the pool of law firms which participate is limited and so it does not provide potential clients with a comparison of all potential providers.
A limitation of all the information provided by all these sites, and many law firms’ own websites, is the inability to identify whether the review relates to a similar area of legal advice.
A fund manager who is getting divorced may be looking for a divorce lawyer who has a track record with other financial services executives, but this specific experience may not be easy to spot on a typical website, LinkedIn profile (which are rarely updated), or a review website where there is no detail about the case.
I was recently looking for a planning lawyer and despite combing Google, numerous websites and the legal directories to check out the top ranked planning law firms, none provided any useful indication of whether a solicitor or barrister had any success in obtaining planning permission in similar circumstances (infill rural dwelling) as most touted their track record in large commercial developments. I could not help thinking that I might not be the only client who would find it useful to consult a database of planning law decisions to find the legal team with the best track record of success in this type of case.
While I am not aware that any such analysis is being done on planning cases, it has been done for the UK High Courts which handle just under 4,000 cases per year.
The US legal analytics company Premonition has recently released the UK High Courts Report 2017 covering the analysis of 12,000 UK cases for the years 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Toby Unwin, CIO and founder, makes the point that many of the firms who ‘tout their prowess … about bitcoin, autonomous vehicles, and drone law, have never tried a case in any of these areas’. The Premonition algorithm, which reads 50,000 documents in less than a second, aims to provide General Counsel with a list of the law firms and barristers who have ‘tried such cases, the settlement amounts, and which judges ruled for which side’ – useful information indeed.
The report names those firms and barristers with the highest rate of success in each court – which seems to be just the sort of information that the CMA want to make widely available.
While artificial intelligence systems are starting to gain traction in the legal profession, they are currently only affordable for large corporates, but perhaps it will not be too long before the benefits of independent number crunching trickle down to smaller clients.
Sue Bramall is director at Berners Legal Marketing