The recent news that the Legal Services Board (LSB) is debating making review sites for law firms compulsory was met with healthy debate among the profession, with some labelling the suggestion ‘ludicrous’, ‘laughable’ and ‘ridiculous’. It is true that many do not consider online review or comparison sites an appropriate way for consumers to accurately judge and compare standards of legal advice and support.
However, given the ever-evolving world of legal services and a steady march towards more transparency and accessibility, it is doubtful that hesitant lawyers will be able to kick the issue of online review sites into the long grass. And nor should they. Although the process of online reviews is not perfect, these reviews are here to stay and those firms which do not embrace this new world will be left behind.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority is currently running a pilot exercise in conjunction with the Council for Licensed Conveyancers and CILEx Regulation, exploring online reviews and encouraging law firms to engage with this process. In the long-term, it is thought that more reviews for lawyers will improve the availability of information about the quality of legal services for the public, based on the statistic that 89% of consumers check online before making a purchase. Increasing the information available to consumers looking for legal services is also important as, according to a Competition and Markets Authority report, information is still lacking around comparing how firms perform.
Phase one of the pilot focuses on how law firms interact and engage with online client reviews. At the beginning of June, the SRA reported back that the pilot was seeing success, with many firms involved in the pilot reaping the rewards of increased engagement with online reviews.
My firm was asked to take part in the pilot and we happily agreed, although many of the actions involved had already become part of our day-to-day activity. As a small, relatively new law firm operating nationally, we have recognised how important online reviews are to help us grow our client base. More and more clients are consulting Google before instructing a solicitor, and most clients nowadays will have checked our website and reviews before getting in touch. Although word of mouth is still very important, particularly for our firm, which has a large cross-border European client base, we find online reviews can positively reinforce these recommendations.
As well as helping to attract new clients who might not have heard about the firm otherwise, 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. We can then work this client feedback into staff appraisals and, more generally, identify where we excel as a firm and what might need improving. Weaving material from client reviews into the firm’s marketing and sales material can also help create very engaging and genuine content.
Of course, it is not just about reading the reviews but about engaging with them. This includes bad reviews – which are inevitable. It is important to deal with these reviews in a professional manner, rather than trying to argue with the client, giving an explanation or undermining a client’s version of events. A brief response and acknowledgement is better than no response. A standardised approach to dealing with negative reviews should be worked into internal policies.
Much of the criticism of the LSB announcement focused on the validity of online reviews and how a firm can deal with malicious or fake reviews. On this point, we saw a story at the start of the year concerning a firm, Summerfield Browne, which was awarded £25,000 in damages for a defamatory Trustpilot review. The firm saw new business enquiries drop as a result of the review, which used the word ‘scam’ in its headline. This case shows the power that one negative review can have, but also that the court will not stand for such defamatory reviews. Most sites have a robust complaints system to deal with fake or malicious reviews.
It is important to encourage clients to leave reviews. We have found that, although lawyers can often forget to ask this question as pressing deadlines take over, the process can be fully automated via the case management system and reviews portal.
For firms beginning to dip their toe into the world of online reviews, it can be overwhelming. There is also a huge number of sites which will carry reviews of solicitors. My advice on this point would be to actively engage with just one review provider to begin with. Part of the pilot asks those involved to actively look for reviews of their firm across all the sites and respond and engage. This is good practice, but just focusing on one site can be a good way to get to grips with how it all works.
Online reviews are increasingly becoming an integral part of every consumer’s buying journey and there is no reason why legal services would be excluded from this. Equally, as consumers are increasingly familiar with checking reviews online, and also leaving their own reviews, these reviews of solicitors will always exist and likely grow in volume, whether a law firm engages with them or not.
Although I do not think reviews need to be made compulsory, you cannot slow progress. Online reviews are here to stay – ignore them at your peril.
Marcin Durlak is managing partner at IMD Solicitors