New rules on publishing price and service information kick in this week. Enforcement will be light-touch at first, but marketeers say law firms should exploit the opportunity to showcase their wares
For some it is what they have been doing for years. For others, an unwelcome and time-consuming intrusion from a meddling regulator.
Whatever your opinion of new transparency regulations, they are now unavoidable. Firms offering certain services will be required to publish price and service information on their websites from Thursday (6 December). The rules apply to conveyancing (residential), probate (uncontested), motoring offences (summary offences), immigration (excluding asylum), employment tribunals (unfair or wrongful dismissal), debt recovery and licensing applications.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority insists the rules will give consumers the facts they need to make informed choices.
Scepticism is not difficult to find, but some want solicitors to see the changes as a positive, forcing them to rethink how they market their services and seek new clients.
David Gilroy, director of Bristol-based Conscious Solutions, which helps firms design and maximise returns on their websites, urges solicitors to be bold in how they present information.
‘Firms who put transparent pricing front and centre will do better than those who bury it,’ says Gilroy. ‘Let’s say someone searches for “conveyancing”. Your website is top on Google so they click through and right there at the top of the page is a “transparent pricing” advert/button/panel. They then look at the number two-ranked site and there is no obvious pricing. Who do you think they will trust more?’
Price information, the SRA says, must be presented in a ‘clear and easy to understand format’, providing a total cost or – if this is not possible – an average or range of costs.
You will have to: explain the basis of your charges, including any hourly rate or fixed fees; highlight likely disbursements; be clear on whether VAT is included; and outline when clients may have to pay.
Clients must know what services are included for the quoted price (and those which are not), how long work may take, and the qualifications and experience of both those carrying out the work and their supervisors.
Michelle Garlick, partner and head of the compliance team at national firm Weightmans, says there are risks for both firms and clients if the information is presented badly – but the opportunity is there for those who grasp it.
She said: ‘If done properly, it could provide more of an opportunity for firms to showcase their expertise and reputation. It could also raise clients’ awareness of what is involved in a property transaction and thus help to better manage client expectations. But there is a risk too much information or a long list of caveats/exclusions either becomes meaningless or more confusing for consumers.’
Enforcement is likely to be ‘soft touch’ in the short term, with non-compliant firms starting to be contacted after Christmas.
The temptation for some will be to defy the rules and test the regulator’s patience. Any firms taking such a stance will eventually face disciplinary action. The era of openness is undoubtedly here – perhaps the only thing left to do now is try and make it work for you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will price information bind me to a specific cost, which may prove to be unrealistic once a client briefs me on the full details of their case?
The information you publish is designed to provide people with an indication of the likely costs you charge for a typical case. A more detailed discussion relating to their specific matters would still be expected to occur at the point of engagement.
Won’t the public just focus on price when choosing legal services?
Research consistently shows that the most important factor people consider when choosing a legal service provider is quality, closely followed by price.
What if I don’t have a website?
You must still have the information readily available in other formats for anyone who requests it.
Isn’t the SRA meddling in matters that don’t concern it?
We are not interfering in what firms charge, that is a matter for you, your clients and market competition. Whatever you choose to charge, we want that information for some services made readily available on your website, so that members of the public and businesses can make informed choices when they are looking for legal help.