Boring old lawyer registers are now crucial in a world where information in king.
There is an ongoing EU-funded project, run by the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe and the European Lawyers Foundation, which goes by the wonderful title of Find-A-Lawyer 3. It is like a Hollywood franchise.
And the issues on which it concentrates are those becoming central to lawyers in a virtual world: what use to make of lawyer data in the promotion of legal services.
Find-A-Lawyer 1 (or FAL 1) involved the construction of the Find-A-Lawyer search engine on the European Commission’s e-justice portal. You should check it out at tinyurl.com/gwnetfk, though if you do not find your own details there, please take it up with the Law Society. English solicitors are among the few not represented, as a result of non-participation by our professional body.
Most of the rest of Europe is there, and is searchable in all EU languages and according to certain criteria, such as area of practice and languages spoken, based on the bars’ own electronic directories.
FAL 2 built a system of verification of roles of lawyers for the purpose of electronic cross-border proceedings. This means that, through the use of data from FAL 1, a lawyer can file a claim or a necessary form with a court in another member state, and that court can be satisfied that the person doing so is a lawyer.
FAL 3 seeks to improve on both FAL 1 and FAL 2, for instance by building greater consistency in FAL 1’s data and investigating new search criteria, and by obtaining greater participation of lawyers in FAL 2.
What emerges from this series of projects is that those boring registers of lawyers, which bars have been obliged to maintain for decades, are now a crucial possession in a world where information is king. The FAL 3 project also aims to investigate market developments in lawyer data, and see to what use some holders of such data are putting them.
Many bars in Europe – the great majority probably – are against publishing anything but the classic information of name, contact details, date of admission and other strictly objective facts. There are four broad areas of growing interest, though.
The first is the ability of the lawyer to add extra information to their own data. Any potential client can already find out a good deal about a lawyer from commercial or other directories, or from the firm’s own website. Should the bars be the main providers of such data, being the only ones with comprehensive and reliable lists? The Law Society is adding a functionality to the Find A Solicitor site. You can now increase your profile by submitting a detailed biography on expertise and areas of practice. The Luxembourg Bar permits it too, and lawyer-published data is added once the bar has checked it first.
Second, there is growing pressure for more information about prices. The Legal Services Consumer Panel published a report earlier this month called Opening up Data in Legal Services, which said that ‘approved regulators should require the publication of the average cost of legal services on the websites of approved firms and individuals, and mandate that they provide this information on request. This should also include the average cost of disbursements’. It is a short step from that to the harvesting of such data by price comparison websites, similar to those found in the insurance or travel sectors.
Third, there are lawyer rating sites, where clients can add their comments about the service they have received from lawyers – a TripAdvisor for legal services. The American website Avvo is a leading example. It would be impossible to find a single bar which thinks it a good idea for the bar’s own data to serve as a platform for such a service, even though the consequence is that such services will be provided by the private market.
And fourth, rushing after the mention of Avvo, is the use of such data on a platform to provide legal services. Avvo began as a lawyer rating site, and has now moved to provide Uber-like services: fixed-fee legal offers, where all Avvo does is connect client to lawyer through its platform. Many have predicted the inevitability of such a service and it has now arrived. The bar’s data could be similarly used, but never will be.
Yet, just as regular taxi services have developed their own Uber-like app in response to Uber, so Avvo-like platforms will doubtless spread fast in the legal market, maybe soon becoming a prime tool for purchasing legal services.
FAL 3 will survey such developments to allow the bars to understand a fast-moving scene. The bars are governed, though, by strict public interest requirements regarding their data, and so it is inevitable that the private market will retain control of innovation.
Jonathan Goldsmith is a consultant and former secretary-general at the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs