February 21 2024
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Watch out for those meerkats

Watch out for those meerkats

The internet is, mostly, a wonderful thing. At the risk of showing my age, I can remember life before it all went online, when you had to do homework in the library in your own handwriting and, if that meant you missed Neighbours, there wasn’t a catch up, writes Louise Restell. The web has brought us Twitter, Tumblr and TED Talks, enabled us to shop 24/7, share our photos with people we don’t even know and read real-time, eyewitness accounts of breaking news. And it’s given us the comparison website.

Once upon a time, getting the best deal for anything, from a builder to a bike, meant leafing through the Yellow Pages and spending hours on the phone or traipsing up and down the high street trying to remember which shop had 10 per cent off. This has now all been replaced by a few keystrokes and the click of a mouse.

So far so good.

But you know it has come to something when there’s a comparison site for comparison sites (www.comparethecomparisonsites.com). The thing is, comparison sites don’t exist for the goodness of mankind, they exist to make money, which means if someone can come up with a new way of making money out of helping consumers through the maze of choice in any given area, they will.

That said, comparison sites are a boon for consumers trying to navigate markets with large numbers of suppliers and a wide range of complicated pricing options and product variations. Or markets where they don’t know much, if anything, about what they’re buying. The question is, can what works for insurance, banking, hotels and energy work for legal services?

Most lawyers would respond with a resounding ‘no’. Legal services, they say, are far too ‘lengthy, complex and unpredictable’ to be boiled down to a simple fixed-fee quote on a comparison website. That hasn’t stopped lots of them from springing up all over the place, which means some law firms at least must be signing up.

An intriguing Law Society paper on price comparison web sites suggests that not everybody in Chancery Lane is comfortable with increasing consumer empowerment. One passage reads: ‘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.’

In this, as in much else, lawyers are under the misplaced illusion that what they think will have any influence on the market. It is not so long ago I used to meet lawyers who took pride in not having email or a website and a good number still pooh-pooh the notion that there are better ways to structure a law firm than a partnership.

So what do they know?

While it’s true some legal services are more complicated than credit cards or mobile phone tariffs, not all of them are. I’d even go so far as to suggest that finding a suitable quote for a straightforward bit of conveyancing is a lot simpler than most mobile phone tariffs. There seems no earthly reason why consumers can’t make an informed choice about this sort of transactional legal service using a comparison website (indeed, MoneySupermarket.com already offers this).

I do agree it would be a mistake to think all legal services lend themselves to the sort of choice based almost entirely on price. Where lawyers have got it wrong, however, is in assuming there won’t be more sophisticated models to overcome this. Unfortunately, I am not too sure that anyone has managed it yet.

A brief canter through the already proliferating legal comparison sites suggests most of them have yet to find the winning formula. Most are little more than glorified directories, digital Yellow Pages that promise to find you the right lawyer but really only match your location and legal issue with lawyers who say that’s what they do.

Some go so far as to ask for details about your case before getting lawyers to send you a quote and some even claim to collect customer feedback, although I’ve yet to see very much of it.

But genuine feedback, as opposed to the top-down ‘validation’ some of these sites offer, is surely what creates worth and good firms shouldn’t be afraid of it. Customer feedback does not mean a full on rant à la Solicitors from Hell, although it does have to allow the good as well as the bad to have any value. Collating this with other useful information, like quality marks and complaints data, and you start to get something that enables consumers to make meaningful choices based on more substantial issues than price.

The Legal Services Consumer Panel has not been unforthcoming in its campaign to open up the legal market to comparison sites and in May published 20 good practice standards, covering things like accessibility, accuracy and impartiality, which a handful of sites have signed up to. While they clearly offer consumers a degree of protection, although being voluntary this is limited, I am not convinced they do a great deal to promote the competition and choice needed in this market.

More to the point, are comparison websites even part of the solution? Russian meerkats may be all over our TV screens but is the format we are all familiar with being overtaken by social networks where users share information and recommendations directly with their contacts? As Jon Busby of Epoq Legal Ltd says:

‘We won’t go to the comparison site because it is there. We will go to it because it has been validated by people we have chosen to trust. Key is building a community of trust…that is what legal comparison sites should be doing now.’

And there’s the rub. It doesn’t really matter what lawyers think about comparison websites. Even if they do embrace the idea, the chances are the sites popping up all over the place today will be gone tomorrow if they rely on a formulaic approach based on the traditional legal services model geared around lawyers’ needs. Jon Busby again:

‘…firms will have to get up to speed…that will probably mean a car crash waiting to happen, or firms just don’t get in the car, which is more likely.’

The real beauty of the internet comes from its unpredictability, the democracy that drives it and its potential to connect people in ways hitherto unforeseen. Thus it is inevitable consumers will look to it for help in making decisions about a whole range of issues, from buying a laptop to booking a holiday. Choosing a lawyer should be no different, so watch out for those meerkats.