A law firm’s reputation counts for more than cost in choosing a conveyancer, according to what the Solicitors Regulation Authority today hails as the largest-ever behavioural trial on price and decision-making in legal services. Just 6% of customers chose their solicitor on the basis they were the cheapest, the trial found, and a mere 1% because they were value for money. Nearly three-quarters chose a conveyancer on the basis of a recommendation from an acquaintance or intermediary.

The SRA nevertheless insists the findings underpin its transparency agenda, pointing to evidence that consumers make better decisions when prices are quoted on firms’ websites. 

The study is based on a randomised trial of 4,001 members of the public conducted by Economic Research, together with surveys of 1,001 recent homebuyers and 1,146 law firms.

Less than one in five firms surveyed advertised any price information, on- or offline. Reasons ranged from basing price on the needs of each client (53%) and not wanting competitors to see their prices (17%). Of firms that did advertise price, 70% did so in order to make it easier for clients to understand their services, 57% to attract more clients and 31% to be more competitive.

Those surveyed cited a firms’ reputation (42%) ahead of cost (32%) as the most important factors in choosing a provider, followed by location (26%) and a personal recommendation (22%). 

The regulator highlights evidence that customers are more likely to make ‘good financial decisions’ when prices are more readily available. Some 62% selected the ’best option’ when prices appeared on a website homepage, compared to 57% when prices had to be sought by filling out an online form, the regulator says. Two-thirds of people shop around for legal services, the research found, but only 15% can get prices without having to ask for a specific quote.

The SRA recently consulted on proposals which included creating a solicitor and law firm public register, firms publishing information on prices, and a new logo to help people understand the protections in place when using a regulated firm or solicitor. It will make a decision on next steps in the summer.

Paul Philip, SRA chief executive said: ’People with a legal problem are struggling to find the information they need to make a good choice of provider. This research suggests more clearly signposted information on price could help people. Of course, it is only one part of the picture. Just as price is important, a firm’s reputation and expertise also really matter.

’We will consider the research findings alongside responses to our late 2017 consultation on better information, so that we make sure any future changes are based on strong evidence.’

Responding to the research, the Law Society stressed that getting the right information at the right time and in the right way is vital to making an informed choice about legal services. Consumers value quality, skill and peace of mind as well as price, it said, urging the SRA not to extrapolate from one area of law - conveyancing -  to draw conclusions about the whole marketplace.

’Many clients seek legal advice at moments of great anxiety and stress. Helping them to make informed choices about what is required to resolve their legal problems is at the heart of our work,’ said Society president Joe Egan. ’We want to help people understand their legal issue and the most appropriate solution for them before they decide what price to pay. You don’t get that from most websites - you do get it from talking to a solicitor.’