‘It’s a sad day for freedom of speech and the court’s decision has deprived the public of a valuable warning system.’ This was Rick Kordowski’s response a decade ago to the High Court order to remove his website, ‘Solicitors from Hell’ from the internet. The internet had long been styled ‘the wild west’, and the Law Society decided it was time to put on its sheriff’s badge and clean up this bit of the web. The society’s then chief executive Des Hudson headed to court with a posse that included leading QC Hugh Tomlinson. ‘This website,’ Hudson said, ‘has served simply as a vehicle for pursuing personal grudges and vendettas against conscientious and reputable firms and legal professionals.’
It was a striking episode, but few recall Kordowski had also launched the website ‘Solicitors from Heaven’. This site promised users it featured ‘good, decent, fighting professional, passionate lawyers’. He told the Guardian it listed 200 firms, some of which had paid £299 for a ‘lifetime listing’ (a lifetime ban from Solicitors from Hell was thrown in).
‘Solicitors from Heaven’ did not last either – Kordowski was effectively ridden out of town by the High Court ruling and his mounting legal fees. But was he on to something?
Reviews are at any given price point. So a review of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at 4-stars isn’t the same as Burger King at 4-stars. And I do use reviews for insurance, banks and just today builders. Let’s not underestimate consumers
The Legal Services Board does not cite Kordowski’s work as an inspiration, but it is supporting an online reviews pilot by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Council for Licensed Conveyancers and CILEx Regulation. The SRA’s pilot is ongoing and includes 70 law firms.
Action to ‘catalyse’ change in the legal market is needed, an LSB paper concluded in June. The paper raised the prospect of a mandatory sign-up to customer/client review sites ‘should voluntary approaches not achieve sufficient and fast enough progress’.
The combination of a star rating and qualitative feedback would be a huge change for the vast majority of firms, and feelings run high in the legal sector. I found out just how high when the Gazette published a comment article in which I questioned the utility of reviews. In summary, I noted that no one I knew left online reviews or gave services star ratings, so knocking my trust in them. What had increased exponentially, unseen by the regulator, was people’s ability to access wide networks to which they put specific questions and requests for recommendations – from the ubiquitous street WhatsApp groups to a Facebook page for an area (my area’s page has 7,000-plus members).
‘You are,’ business development consultant Clare Fanner told me, ‘looking at this topic from the privileged position of someone who knows the sector and has a trusted network. Many people who buy legal services don’t necessarily have the same privileges. They are unfamiliar with the territory and their friend down the pub may not instil them with confidence when it comes to selecting a professional adviser.’
Crispin Passmore, the SRA’s former policy director, also thought me harsh. Taking to Twitter, he said: ‘But Michelin Guide is valued as is Harden’s. And many people do use reviews – not as gospel but as useful info. So I prefer a conveyancer with 10,000 reviews at 4-star than 100 at 5-star. I discount small volumes and understand the wisdom of crowds.’
Star ratings have their own nuances, understood by the public, Passmore added: ‘Reviews are at any given price point. So a review of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at 4-stars isn’t the same as Burger King at 4-stars. And I do use reviews for insurance, banks and just today builders. Let’s not underestimate consumers. Or overestimate [the Legal Services Board].’
Writing in the comment space below my article, Review Solicitors founder Michael Hanney was not happy with my argument. ‘The irony of your article being an online opinion that rejects the validity of online opinions is not lost on me.’
Hanney continued: ‘Asking for recommendations from people you don’t know on Facebook seems to be a slightly odd way to do things – I’m at a loss as to why they would somehow be more qualified to give an opinion than someone else writing their opinion on a different platform.’
He described the LSB as ‘fixated on taking a brilliant UK success story – the legal sector – and making sure that it remains best in class in the future. Its support for review sites is purely on the basis of them being the fairest, most transparent way in which to evaluate the quality of legal services at scale’. Hanney also called me ‘privileged’.
More cordial criticism came in a tweet by Helen Hamilton-Shaw, strategy director at the law firm network LawNet, whose members use the Review Solicitors website. ‘Interesting & shows why firms need a variety of approaches as not everyone is the same,’ she wrote. ‘A majority of @LawNetUK members successfully use the @ReviewSolicitor site to help them find new clients. A good marketing strategy uses different tactics to reach as many people as possible.’
Do, though, Tripadvisor-style reviews suit professional services? ‘Tripadvisor and the like are full of cranks venting tangentially,’ ran a typical anonymous comment under my Gazette article, ‘or people with too much time on their hands writing platitudes. Think of your favourite restaurant or hotel and have a look at some of the reviews. Mainly tosh, pedantry or mush… I wouldn’t dream of posting a review on my favourite hotel. I don’t want it to get too busy or put the prices up.’
Matthew Rushton, a former colleague who is now a consultant legal projects manager, is also sceptical. ‘Online reviews are hugely problematic,’ he says, noting ‘distinct parallels with medicine in respect of quality measurement, standards and, ultimately, a dependence on the seller to diagnose problems… such reviews are dangerous in giving clients an illusory sense of certainty.’
Fixing a problem that does not exist?
Chris Nichols (pictured), director of policy and regulation at the LSB, tells the Gazette: ‘While we are not running the [online review] pilots, we are greatly encouraged by them. The level of engagement they have achieved has exceeded their minimum expectations. Why do we care about this? As you will be aware, there is a real problem with unmet legal need, with people not getting the help they need. All sorts of things contribute to that. People don’t know what to expect when they use a lawyer. We see this as a mechanism – consumers trust other consumers. If this could take off, it is a valuable tool.
‘We have seen an organic growth in engagement [with online reviews] – the pandemic has fuelled this. In the last year it has been moving in the right direction, but we are still in a position where the majority [are not using online reviews]. So we have to consider voluntary and mandatory requirements. But it is also undoubtedly true that the greatest impact is if people engage willingly with this. Our current thinking is – the market is growing, how could we further catalyse [that]?’
Asked about the cost implications for firms of any future requirement to sign up to online review services, Nichols says: ‘Certainly we are not saying, and I can’t envisage it, that regulators should require firms to sign up to particular costs. We are interested in consumers being able to see, and be invited to give, feedback. It is in the public and consumer interest, and could be of benefit to firms.’
With 83% of law firm clients surveyed by the Legal Services Consumer Panel recording high levels of satisfaction with their law firms, is the LSB trying to fix a problem that does not exist? That is not the point, Nichols replies: ‘The pretty high satisfaction rates [with solicitors recorded by] the LSCP is great… But too many people with a legal problem don’t use a lawyer. You could see [review and comparison sites] as a way of bringing that satisfaction to [greater] attention.’
Does he have concerns about the chilling effect on negative feedback that incidences such as the libel action brought by a law firm against a Trustpilot reviewer earlier this year have on honest reviews? ‘Don’t let concerns about a small minority of cases get in the way of realising benefits for society and the sector,’ Nichols urges.
Firms that subject themselves to the scrutiny of online reviews are a minority, but their number is slowly edging up. Voluntarily subjecting themselves to such scrutiny, some say, is also their way of building trust – it differentiates them from less ‘open’ competitors and sends the message that they have nothing to hide.
Compulsion would be a different matter, and sceptics include people who speak up for online reviews. As LawNet’s chief executive Chris Marston, a former head of professional practices at Lloyds Bank, put it: ‘Agree – no place for compulsion and no role for regulator here.’
Writing on Review Solicitors’ own website after the publication of the LSB paper, Hanney argued for compulsion: ‘Voluntary review collection is coming to an end. While the collection of online reviews is key to the increased transparency of information available to legal consumers, the LSB cannot be confident that all legal providers will adopt this of their own accord.’
But if this would be a change for law firms, it would also require a change in consumer/client behaviour. While Review Solicitors claims ‘statistics have shown that when it comes to choosing a solicitor, over 70% of clients are influenced by online reviews’, market research consultancy IRN found that only 10% of people used comparison and review sites to find lawyers, representing a slight increase year on year.
If the true picture is anywhere near IRN’s finding, it highlights the headache of consumer-focused competition regulators everywhere – what to do if consumers or clients do not respond to the provision of extra information, fail to shop around or fail to provide feedback.
Firms need a variety of approaches as not everyone is the same. A majority of @LawNetUK members successfully use the @ReviewSolicitor site to help them find new clients. A good marketing strategy uses different tactics to reach as many people as possible
Helen Hamilton-Shaw, LawNet
As Kordowski found to his cost, the legal sector does not tolerate a ‘wild west’ approach to feedback. One solicitor featured on ‘Solicitors from Hell’ was awarded £10,000 in damages. A ‘copycat’ website was sued by solicitors Brett Wilson in 2015, with damages again set at £10,000 (although the owner of the site could not be identified). Earlier this year a man who left a negative review of law firm Summerfield Browne on the Trustpilot website was ordered to pay £25,000 in libel damages.
Trustpilot, which was not a party to the action, posted a statement: ‘If consumers are left fearful of leaving negative reviews, this could result in consumers being misled about the quality of a business and businesses being deprived of the valuable feedback from which they can learn, improve and grow.’
Trustpilot is one of nine review platforms taking part in the SRA pilot. The others are Review Solicitors, The Law Superstore, Legal Utopia, Really Moving, REVIEWS.io, Solicitor.info, Chawker and Search 4 Legal.
In February the regulator published a voluntary code of conduct. To comply with the code, the platforms must be independent of legal services providers and be clear about any commercial links they have, including referral fees. Information must be shown in a way that is ‘fair, clear and not misleading’, while reviews should only come from ‘clients or prospective clients’. Firms should be able to respond to reviews, and clients should have a way of updating or removing reviews. The code also requires a facility on the platform for firms to respond to reviews.
These requirements, combined with the risk of legal action platforms face as publishers, mean that a process of checking, and in some cases adjudicating the fairness of content, may be necessary. Some platforms assist firms with surveying clients, and a series of automated ad-ons, including Facebook and Google integration, LinkedIn integration, automated review requests and individual solicitor profiles.
That service level inevitably comes at a cost. Looking at the platforms participating in the SRA pilot, Review Solicitors’ comprehensive package is £299 a month; Trustpilot quotes a ‘standard plan’ at £199 a month, though extra features can take the cost above Review Solicitors’ full price. Legal Utopia’s standard ‘membership’ is £99.99 a month, with the premier option costing £499. REVIEWS.io has four packages, ranging from £29 to £399 a month. Solicitor.info’s membership costs begin at £34.95, though it is price on application for extra features. Chawker’s annual listing fee is not given publicly. Search4Legal’s tariff, referral or membership rates are not publicly listed. Really Moving charges firms between £5.99 and £8.99 for each client lead, and The Law Superstore charges for the ‘delivery’ of ‘pre-qualified clients’ (rate not published).
Law firms contacted by the Gazette expressed satisfaction with the value for money provided by their chosen platform, though not all nine were mentioned. IMD Solicitors’ managing partner Marcin Durlak is one. ‘As well as helping to attract new clients who might not have heard about the firm otherwise,’ Durlak, a Review Solicitors customer, wrote in last week’s Gazette, ‘we have also found that online reviews help us identify stellar individual performance at the firm. It is also wonderful to receive positive reviews for our lawyers’ work which might have otherwise gone unsaid.’
But Durlak does not support compulsory reviews. If introduced, compulsory reviews could carry a price tag, for services or referrals, if reviews are via platforms such the nine chosen for the SRA pilot.
If people are wise enough to give us their money, we should be wise enough to listen to their feedback.
Simon Marshall, legal marketing consultant
Firms may find they are already the subject of online reviews, even if they have not signed up to a platform. Google invites business reviews – at Canary Wharf, Clifford Chance gets 4.6 stars out of a possible 5. Google reviews may not be important to the magic circle firm’s business, but for consumer-facing firms the LSB is focused on, their Google star rating is something many monitor.
This is not just a marketing concern – they may want to look at and consider feedback. And feedback can be even more detailed when it is a service they get from one of the online reviews platforms. In Hanney’s long Gazette comment, he wrote: ‘Online reviews… are a great way of improving one’s business and provide a huge point of differentiation for those firms who use them as part of their feedback loop.’
In one discussion thread on LinkedIn, some of the longest exchanges were between people who, like me, had spent several years working as researchers on the Legal 500. Like its main rival, Chambers, the directory has established ways of reviewing law firms. Firms compete for a placing on a researched yet subjective ranking in each area, and do so by providing summary examples of their work, the names of client referees and feedback on their peers. The resulting synthesis of submissions and interviews is researchers’ and editors’ subjective but independent ‘take’ on the market.
As with online review platforms, the researchers are open to the charge that they are less informed than the lawyers they are assessing – some researchers and editors have legal education or have been in practice, others not. The directories have endured and are now a feature of the global legal market. But the resources required by the research process – for the directories and law firms – are beyond the reach of many smaller firms.
There have been several attempts to design a product that could serve the mass of law firms that are not listed in the directories, but without an uneconomic outlay in research. Hence the innate attraction of review platforms where automation helps gather information, without the need, respectively, to make submissions or employ researchers and editors.
Simon Marshall, now a legal marketing consultant, highlighted the belief of one Gazette reader that ‘consumers commenting and reviewing is foolish and dangerous’, by asking: ‘What? The people who pay our bills commenting on our services is “foolish and dangerous”?’ He added: ‘If people are wise enough to give us their money, we should be wise enough to listen to their feedback.’
Rushton, another Legal 500 alumnus, replied: ‘Get all the feedback you can and adapt accordingly. Not doing so would be commercial suicide. But, recognise boundaries. The professions exist precisely because we can’t all know everything – we need experts… information asymmetries are an endemic, even defining, quality of the professions: the seller knows more than the buyer.’ This means, he argues: ‘A binary ignore/hoover-up feedback is a false dichotomy.’
According to the LSB’s director of policy and regulation Chris Nichols, who was interviewed for this article (see box), the super-regulator is encouraged by the experience related from the pilot schemes to date, in particular the level of ‘engagement’ from firms seen in the SRA’s 70-firm pilot. But it wants to ‘catalyse’ change. Will that be through a mandatory requirement? The legal profession will shortly get an indication from the LSB when its board meets on 20 July to consider a draft statement.