The High Court has ordered the man behind the SolicitorsFromHell.co.uk which claimed to ‘name and shame’ allegedly poor lawyers to shut his site down. The court ordered Rick Kordowski to ‘cease forthwith to publish’.
Kordowski has had a running battle with the legal profession and, in particular, the Law Society which finally managed to secure an injunction against the site which (in the Society’s words) ‘was not a credible source of reliable information about solicitors’. The hugely controversial website sought to name and shame ‘corrupt, negligent, dishonest, crooked, fraudulent lawyers’ and incurred the wrath of many in the profession – including many perfectly decent lawyers who were wrongly named on the site.
The Law Society reckons Kordowski had been sued for libel on ‘at least 17 occasions’ and claims that there were over £170,000 in outstanding judgments and orders against him. ‘This website has served simply as a vehicle for pursuing personal grudges and vendettas against conscientious and reputable firms and legal professionals,’ said Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson. ‘Far from being of any help to consumers, it has been a danger.’
Kordowski last month lost his slander claim against the Law Society’s chief executive Desmond Hudson following a brief exchange between with Professor John Flood as they were leaving the BBC studios after taking part in Radio 4’s You and Yours. The conversation, as posted by Prof Flood on his weblog, went: ‘As I came out of the BBC yesterday with Des Hudson the chief executive of the Law Society he said Rick Kordowski was a criminal. I reminded Des that the police didn’t think so. He wasn’t happy.’ See here. Hudson had insisted that he had not said Kordowski was a criminal but instead told Flood that his collecting a £299 admin charge from firms to get them delisted was criminal behaviour. Earlier this year Mr Justice Lloyd Jones lambasted the site for comments about a young solicitor that were, he said, ‘baseless, abusive, malicious and an unwarranted slur on the competency and probity of a young lawyer’. The lawyer in question was awarded £10,000 in damages. The judge was especially critical of the site’s admin charge.
The search for quality
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the site – and it has been obvious that many decent lawyers (and others) were unfairly identified – the legal profession has historically had a major problem in dealing with disgruntled clients. See here. ‘While he may have run his site a tad carelessly, the fact that he got 5,000 submissions from punters suggests there is something in it,’ John Flood blogged. More generally consumers struggle to identify decent lawyers for all kinds of reasons – the purchase of legal services is a one-off event, often a ‘distress purchase’ and increasingly people don’t have a family solicitor who does their house sale, Will etc. It makes identifying a reliable lawyer offering price certainty (another key factor) a seemingly impossible task.
‘We put ourselves in their hands and, because they are qualified and they are professionals, we just hope and presume that they going to give us the right information and do the job for us.’ That was the view of one client in a recent paper by Legal Services Consumer Panel (Quality in Legal Services, November 2010). It’s hardly the approach of the empowered and discerning consumer. ‘What is striking is the extent to which the technical quality of advice is unknown,’ observed the report’s authors. Whilst true for the frontline regulators (which did ‘little active monitoring of quality…’), what was more striking was the ‘sheer range of assumptions’ made by consumers as to the quality of legal services. According to the report, consumers ‘assumed’ all lawyers were competent, ‘failed to investigate claims of specialization’ and had ‘inflated expectations’ about the protections offered by regulators. Asked what they wanted from a lawyer, consumers’ ‘overriding focus’ was on service standards rather than ‘technical quality of the advice. ‘The [research] suggests that “quality” is not strongly influencing consumers’ choice of lawyer,’ reckoned the report. ‘This is bad for competition as it means that good quality firms are not differentiating themselves from poorer quality rivals.’
Here come the legal meerkats
The legal services market is already seeing a proliferation of comparethemarket.com-style sites anticipating the newly competitive environment as a result of deregulation under the Legal Services Act. 2007 The Law Society’s Gazette recently reported that a number of sites offering very different kinds of models launched – including comparelegalcosts.com, legalcompare.com and bid4fees.com and Wigster.com – over the last few months.
‘We’re aiming to be the meerkats of the legal world,’ said Wigster founder Nick Miller, a solicitor with more than 20 years’ experience. ‘Compare solicitors, compare prices!’ reads the site’s strapline. Subtlety is no bar to success in the world of advertising and ‘the wigster’ – a cartoon character made out of a barristers’ horsehair – probably has as much chance of impinging itself on the public consciousness as a talking meerkat (comparethemarket.com) or a tuneless opera singer (gocompare.com). The site claims to offer consumers the ability to conduct ‘instant and comprehensive evaluation of law firms, including pricing, service features and performance ratings’. If they can pull that off, it will be a useful contribution.
What the market needs is Tripadvisor-style sites (responsibly run), comparethemarket.com style sites, plus online sources of reliable information signposting them towards trusted sources of help.
This is an excerpt from the Law Society paper: ‘Relationships which were traditionally dominated by respect for a professional status are now being challenged by increasingly “self-informed” consumers. Consequently, the once inviolate professional discourse has been fractured into multiple consumer narratives.’ As I write here, I’m sensing that the authors aren’t entirely convinced that greater consumer empowerment is such a wonderful thing. The Law Society paper points to the use of ‘search and match’ websites (monster.co.uk, loveconfused.com) as successful referral mechanisms before noting that, ‘given the complicated nature of many legal problems’, it ‘would appear price comparison websites wouldn’t be effective without a consideration of quality of service, complexity of case’. Maybe the way to look at is like this: if people are willing to use websites for affairs of the heart, then they are going to use it to draft a will?
The authors begrudgingly concede there is ‘benefit in probing’ the price comparison web site model before it is ‘accepted’ as ‘a valid mechanism in the legal services market’. In its conclusion it talks about factors that ‘need to be discussed and understood’ before the model might be ‘welcomed into the legal services market’.
If comparison websites succeed it will NOT be as a result of the profession bestowing its blessing upon them. The profession’s bête noire SolicitorsFromHell claimed to get 2,500 hits a day. Such sites will work because of demand from consumers driven by a failure on the part of the profession to deliver greater price certainty.
Rick Kordowski on SolicitorsFromHell
What’s the idea behind SfH? ‘It’s a website for the people. There are a lot of solicitor directories out – normally, the firms write their own testimonials. The difference with my site – both heaven and hell – it’s purely driven by the public, good or bad.’
Is there something uniquely dreadful about lawyers? ‘Probably not. The same criticisms could probably be made about accountants, bankers, builders …’ His motivation for setting up the site, which has been running for five years, was his treatment at the hands of lawyers.
The Essex-based self-employed graphic designer claims to have lost £750,000 after being negligently advised on a planning dispute. He was vague about the details of the case (‘it’s complicated’). ‘It devastated me. I lost everything … house, job, money, the whole shooting match.’
Kordowski claimed to have received £500 compensation through the Law Society’s complaints handling process as a result of professional negligence.
What would he say to the many lawyers appalled, perhaps devastated, by unfounded criticism placed on his site? ‘Go back to your client, or whoever complained about you, and sort out your differences.’
Why didn’t he vet claims? Kordowski said that he once did try checking with firms before publishing. ‘Everyone denied the allegations and so I don’t do it any more.’
Finally, I put it to him, he be must either be ‘brave or suicidal’ to bait lawyers: which one? Neither, he replied. ‘I have nothing to lose in terms of cash or assets.’ And what about the controversial ‘admin charge’ to take names off the site? No one ever pays it, he insists. ‘It’s a publicity stunt. I was on the front page of the Law Society’s Gazette a few months ago … so it does work!’