Web platforms allowing clients to review legal services raise difficult issues. How should they work?

I follow developments in find-a-lawyer services, after being involved in the implementation of the European find-a-lawyer service on the European Commission’s e-justice portal.

Now the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) and the European Lawyers’ Foundation have been awarded a new European Commission grant to develop that facility further. One of the aspects of the grant is to conduct a study on the feasibility of adding a lawyer-rating element to it.

Find-a-lawyer and lawyer-rating services are often in the news. You may have read that the Law Society was sued (Schubert Murphy v Law Society) for incorrect information on the Find a Solicitor site. A con-man fraudulently obtained a listing on the site as a solicitor, which was subsequently relied on by a real solicitor in a conveyancing transaction – only for the con-man to run off with the money.

The real solicitor had followed good practice, as recommended by the Law Society, in checking that the opposing party was registered on the Find a Solicitor site.

The Law Society is trying commendably hard to sell the Find a Solicitor site. There is a Twitter account (@LawSocietyFAS) devoted to promoting it, and to enabling clients to find solicitors. It contains plenty of excellent promotional material tweeted regularly for use by solicitors – and the occasional heartfelt request from someone looking for a solicitor (‘We’re seeking vegetarian/vegan #solicitors specialising in Wills & Probate in London and Glasgow. Can you help?’).

Court cases specific to lawyer rating also crop up. In the US, a lawyer has been trying hard to find out who left an anonymous message on her Avvo site. The lawyer felt that it had not been left by a client at all, but by someone she knew who had made a personal attack. Of the 11 reviews on her site, that was the only negative one. The court held that the lawyer was not entitled to have the reviewer identified without evidence supporting her defamation claim.

The question is what bars and law societies should do about lawyer-rating sites. The Gazette has covered in the past the Law Society’s struggles to have the ‘Solicitors from Hell’ website closed down. Should lawyer-rating sites be left to the market (with an uncontrollable risk of defamation and airing of grievances), or should the bars themselves control the sites?

Will lawyer rating become as common as rating your taxi driver on Uber or your hotel or restaurant on TripAdvisor? In other words, although the Solicitors Regulation Authority is now allowing information already in the public domain to be used by independent lawyer comparison sites, should the Find a Solicitor site itself allow clients to rate their lawyers?

The Legal Services Board’s Legal Services Consumer Panel has published ‘Good practice standards’ for comparison websites. One of these standards says: ‘Websites should be independent (not owned, controlled or managed by legal services providers)’. That leaves open the question of whether a professional organisation, which is not itself a legal services provider, should own one.

And, of course, a comparison website is not the same as a customer ratings website, although the services offered by each might overlap.

I can understand the downsides, but there are means of controlling customer or client content to some extent. The site can be monitored, so that comments are only published once they are subject to one of a series of possible checks, ranging from contact with the commentator to a basic control for abuse. That would be labour intensive, and subject to accusation that comments that are critical but true are suppressed.

Or the lawyer could be allowed a reply to all comments when they are published. But that might breach lawyer-client confidentiality, and so be contrary to ethical rules. Or the bar could license lawyer-rating sites, rate them itself, or just issue guidelines for good practice (as the consumer panel has done for comparison sites).

These are difficult questions. If there were not the risk that lawyer-rating sites will in any case appear, we could ignore them. It could be that we should answer ‘no, no, no’ to all of them. But I think that they should in any case be discussed.

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