Clients appear happier than ever with the cost and quality of legal advice. So why don’t consumer watchdogs trumpet these findings? The answer may lie in how the profession is perceived

After a pretty wretched year speaking to clients from bedrooms through Zoom calls, it must have come as a shock to many solicitors that those clients seem happier than ever.

But that is exactly what has happened according to the Legal Services Consumer Panel, which reported last week that consumer satisfaction with the service received was 83% in 2021 (compared with 79% when the survey was first done in 2012). Satisfaction with the outcome was up from 84% to 89%.

In a sector where clients are often making a distress purchase, where there is the possibility in adversarial litigation of losing, and where the complexity of the law can sometimes be difficult to explain, those are pretty stark results. And satisfying.

Drilling down further, the survey of 3,500 clients found satisfaction levels had increased on the clarity of information about costs and service, and on the extent to which people were treated as individuals. Those who used a lawyer for will writing (93%) and power of attorney (90%) were most likely to be satisfied with the service they received.

Even the thorny issue of costs was not a cause for concern among the majority. Almost two-thirds (65%) of consumers said that the overall service and advice provided was good value for money, in line with the previous year. Again, consistent with last year, just 9% of consumers said that the service they received was poor value for money.

Curiously, the only group that seems perturbed by the high levels of satisfaction reported is the consumer panel itself. Chair Sarah Chambers seemed reluctant to reference the success, noting merely that the group was ‘happy to see that legal services providers were able to react to the pandemic by substantially increasing their offer of online services’.

The grudging praise mirrored that of the Legal Services Board, whose own survey of consumers from January 2020 found that 90% of people were satisfied with the service they received from solicitors and 84% felt their solicitor had provided value for money. On that occasion, LSB chair Dr Helen Phillips seemed to gloss over this, concluding that the survey revealed a ‘significant access to justice gap’.

'The group is happy to see that legal services providers were able to react to the pandemic by substantially increasing their offer of online services'

Sarah Chambers, Legal Services Consumer Panel

Cynics might suggest that high levels of satisfaction render querulous quangos such as the Legal Services Consumer Panel somewhat redundant, and that finding reasons not to be cheerful gives them cause to continue asking the profession for money each year.

However, with the Competition and Markets Authority breathing heavily down their backs, regulators and consumer groups have to show a keen interest in increasing choice and information. The drum of comparison sites has been banged for some time, but potential clients do not seem to be listening (see feature, p22). Reputation remains the most important factor in choosing a provider, and its importance has increased from 73% in 2012 to 80% in 2021. The consumer panel said it was ‘disappointing’ that clients are still relying on ‘gut feeling’ and subjective recommendations as proxies for quality, adding: ‘They deserve more than this: regulators need to step up their work in developing objective quality indicators in order to empower consumers to make an informed choice of provider.’

Is choice really so limited? The panel says so, but consumers are not convinced. In fact, the proportion of people who felt happy with the choices on offer has increased in the last 10 years from 66% to 74%. The panel described this as a ‘modest’ rise and pointed out that progress on this metric has stalled in the last four years.

Lawyers might also point out that the type of choice regulators want them to offer is increasingly available in any case. The use of online services has more than doubled since 2012 from 21% to 44%, while those taking advantage of fixed fee arrangements is up from 38% to 52%. More consumers are also shopping around now compared with 10 years ago.

No one would suggest that there is not work to do to empower consumers with more information and choice. But there also appears to be a gap between what consumer groups believe to be the public perception of the legal profession and what people actually perceive.

Most clients appear content with the choices on offer and are more determined than ever to trust their instinct on which lawyer will best serve their interests. That might frustrate the quangos whose raison d’etre is to highlight flaws in the system, but while the majority of consumers are satisfied with the outcome, the case for forcing through radical change becomes ever harder to make.