Using Legal Comparison Web Sites
Last week saw the announcement by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) that it would accede to the Legal Services Consumer Panel’s (LSCP) request and make available to third party comparison web sites data about solicitors. That data was likely to include the size of the firm and any disciplinary issues in the past.
Is this something that firm’s should be worried about and if possible resisting or are comparison websites something they should they be embracing as the next step in marketing themselves to the public?
Legal comparison web sites, as opposed to legal directory web sites which have a far longer history and can trace their ancestry back to printed legal directories such as the Law Society Solicitors Directory and publications from the likes of Legal 500 and Waterlows, have been around for several years. We will concentrate here on comparison web sites.
They started to appear back in 2008 when Moneysupermarket.com announced its intention to move into the legal marketplace and CompareConveyancers.co.uk was launched by the Yorkshire Building Society. By 2010 sites such as “takelegaladvice” and “Wigster” had also appeared on the scene and 2011 even the Law Society were taking an interest, publishing in September of that year their interesting, but essentially inconclusive, academic paper entitled “Applying the comparison web site model to legal services” i . This revealed that there were at least ten such web sites.
More recently, the LSCP seem to have become wedded to the idea that comparison web sites are going to be the public’s answer to access to the legal profession despite the fact that in its own words “our data shows that so far only 2% of respondents have used a comparison website to help them choose a legal service”.
Indeed, there is an argument for saying that they have given credibility to the sites that might otherwise not have happened – or certainly not happened quite so quickly.
Their first “official” step was the publication of a report on legal comparison web sites and a set of draft standards which appeared in February 2012. This was followed by an agreement by the Legal Services Board in May 2012 to request regulators to work with the LSCP in taking forward work on comparison sites and the publication in May 2013 of the “Good practice standards for legal comparison websites” document. It was this that culminated in the acceptance by the SRA of the need to provide data to legal comparison web sites, communicated in a letter of the 8 August from Crispin Passmore at the SRA to the LSB stating:
“We are also exploring how best we can provide this data to comparison sites ahead of an on line register. We are currently planning to create a data extract that covers as many of the requested fields as possible.”
There are also a number of different models for comparison web sites. These include:
- those who require firms to subscribe and to provide information about fees and services and who may or may not require the firm to make a payment in order to be listed;
- those who simply invite firms to list themselves and their services without charge;
- those who offer both free and paid for listings;
- those that invite the public to rate firms they have used; and
- those that do not disclose firm names but arrange to put potential clients in front of potential firms.
Here to stay
Like it or not, it looks as if legal comparison web sites are here to stay – at least until the next “big idea” comes along. Despite a slow start in their early days they are gradually starting to be accessed by an increasing number of legal services users. That being the case, firms are going to need to make a decision; are they going to:
- make the best use of them that they can and try and ensure that their firm features positively in the site;
- ignore them and hope that they will go away, or
- find a way of conducting their business so that they are not affected by them.
Whether a firm feels that it can ignore comparison web sites will depend upon a number of factors, including whether the firm:
- has a prominent presence in its chosen market place,
- can rely on referrals and repeat clients (if such firms still exist),
- engages in an alternative marketing initiative – for example in the way that Direct Line distances itself from financial comparison web sites,
- specialises in a particular sector of work to the extent that potential clients would be unlikely to use a comparison web site, for example because the firm is known to them, or
- provides services to a sector of the market not covered by comparison web sites.
However, many firms may find that they have been inadvertently caught up in the comparison web site simply by having been “rated” by a former client. If that rating is negative, then ignoring the site may do more harm than good.
Are comparison web sites a good thing or bad thing?
Given that they are here and need to be dealt with in a commercially-based way, this may be an irrelevant question, but let’s ask it anyway.
The Financial Conduct Authority, in a report published last month entitled “Price comparison websites in the general insurance sector”ii concluded, amongst other things, that:
- price comparison web sites did not always ensure that consumers were given the appropriate information to help them make informed decisions;
- consumers could be distracted from crucial product features such as policy coverage and terms;
- there was an increased risk that consumers may buy products purely on the basis of price without understanding key features such as level of cover or excess levels;
- did not make clear their role in the distribution of the product or the nature of service they provided with some consumers mistakenly believing the site had assessed the suitability of the policy for them;
- some sites were failing to disclose a potential conflict of interest.
The LSCP in their 2012 report took a more rose-tinted view of such sites, stating:
“Comparison websites have the potential to benefit consumers by empowering them to drive competition between providers on price, quality and service features. They can also help to make the law more accessible, helping to address a situation where people are intimidated by lawyers and have low understanding of what they do and how they can help them.”iii
The argument that many have put forward against comparison web sites for legal services is that legal services are too complex, and subject to too many varying factors meaning that any comparison that might be made is like comparing eggs with car parts. Complexity, however, is the argument that the legal profession has been putting forward to counter change for many, many years. Going back to the 1970’s it was one of the arguments put forward to the Benson Commissioniv and it has been trotted out on a regular basis ever since. Despite that we have seen numerous changes that have worked – to a greater or lesser extent – including licensed conveyancers, the provision of online legal services and the commoditisation of legal services.
The Law Society, in their 2011 report referred to above gave voice to the “complexity” concern when they concluded that:
“The challenge for price comparison sites …… will be to reconcile the public’s desire for an instant quote and fixed-fee legal work with the reality that many areas of law are complex, lengthy, unpredictable, and, as such, cannot be achieved on a fixed-fee basis.”v
Certainly there are complexities associated with the provision of many legal services that don’t apply, for example, to the selection of an insurance policy or a hotel room. However, there are a substantial number of areas of law where price and level of service are really, at the end of the day, almost the only factors which distinguish one law firm from another.
The danger, of course, is that price may become the only factor by which potential clients choose because they mistakenly believe that they are comparing eggs with eggs. For many members of the public there will be an assumption that all solicitors are equally as competent and that the only determining factors will be those such as service price, level of service and convenience. For that reason it is vital, if they are to be of use, that legal comparison web sites address other factors including quality of service, what the price includes in terms of client contact, whether there are “extras” that will cost more and the extent of any protection offered to the clients.
For that reason, it is essential that sites allow potential clients to look at factors other than just price so that, having short-listed firms on the basis of what they can afford they can then look at other indicators such as client satisfaction before making their final decision.
This problem was highlighted by the Law Society in its 2011 report when it stated:
“At no point do comparison web sites acknowledge the extremely difficult task they may be setting consumers. Faced with three or four firms offering to do similar work for a similar price, how do consumers choose which one to instruct? Searching for a solicitor on the Internet removes many of the social cues that consumers in the past may have picked up from enquiring via phone or in person – cues which contribute to a feeling of (un)ease with a solicitor/firm and ultimately factor in the consumers’ instruction decisions. Albeit these cues are absent from most online searches, not just comparison sites.”
So comparison web sites – good or bad? That really depends upon what they are and what they purport to be?
If they only compare price, and don’t alert the user to the fact that there are other criteria to be taken into account which are of equal, if not greater importance, then the answer has to be that they are a bad thing because they will simply skew the market and drive down prices at the expense of competence and service – in a very similar way to that which we saw during the worst days of conveyancing price wars.
If, however, they enable the prospective client to make a qualitative decision, as well as a purely quantitative one based on price, then they may indeed serve a useful function and may actually drive up quality as firms strive to attract positive recommendations from former clients.
The comparison web sites on offer
Inevitably there is an ever increasing number of comparison web sites vying for the public’s attention. Despite the more obvious benefits that arise from market forces this is probably not a good thing either for the profession who must decide on which sites to concentrate their efforts and resources or for the public who will either get a distorted picture because the site does not deal with all solicitors or simply become confused by the large number on offer.
In 2011 when the Law Society carried out is report there were ten web sites that were considered by them. These were legallybetter.com, qualitysolicitors.com, takelegaladvice.com, contactlaw.co.uk, firstlaw.co.uk, compareconveyancers.co.uk, comparelegalcosts.com, thelawwizard.com, wigster.com and wikivorce.com. By the time of the report by the LSCP this number had had grown to 16vi , however only comparelegalcosts.com, contactlaw.co.uk, legallybetter.com, takelegaladvice.com and wigster.com were common to both lists.
Today, some of those sites have disappeared whilst others – most notably in the area of conveyancing law – have taken their place. Among the casualties firstlaw and takelegaladvice have not been updated for some considerable time whereas wikivorce, comparelegalcosts and legallybetter have gone from strength to strength. Add to these conveyancing comparison sites such as compareconveyancingquotes.co.uk, reallymoving.com and localconveyancingdirect.co.uk, plus the bigger multi-area search sites such as moneysupermarket.com and it can be seen that for many consumers the choice is becoming bewildering.
How to deal with comparison sites
There will be very few firms that can afford either the time or the resources to be able to address their profile in every single comparison web site. For that reason, therefore, firms will need to be selective.
For firms undertaking conveyancing work the choice will be widest and, as a result, hardest. There are literally dozens of conveyancing comparison sites including some such as localconveyancingdirect.co.uk that deal not just with the legal aspects of conveyancing but also cover mortgages, estate agents and tradesmen such as electricians and builders. Firms engaged in more esoteric areas of work are likely to find that the comparison sites relevant to them are far fewer – in some cases the firm may decide they are an irrelevance.
There are, however, a number of factors (not in any particular order of importance) which firms might want to think about when selecting which sites to interact with:
- Analyse the work you do and the client base you serve – is your firm likely to benefit from the kind of work that a comparison site might bring you?
- Ask whether the clients that you want to do work for are likely to use comparison web sites – you may for example act for a sector that is more likely to refer to a printed copy of the Legal 500 in which case you may waste time and money by creating a comparison site presence or attract clients that the firm does not really want.
- What do your partners/colleagues think? Are they likely to be supportive of inclusion in a comparison site? If not why not? Can they be converted to being positive? Remember that if you are the only one in the firm supportive of comparison sites the attitudes of the others may undermine any positive benefit that it might bring.
- Research the market for comparison sites in your sector – make sure that you know what is on offer in terms of the sites which are available to you and weed out any that do not address either the work you do or the type of client that you are looking for.
- Do some checking to see whether your firm has already been listed in any of the sites. This may have arisen for a variety of reasons including:
- because a colleague has created a listing without telling you,
- the site has simply listed all solicitors in a particular area/specialism, or
- you have a satisfied/dissatisfied client that has created a comment about you firm.
- Be especially wary if any sites carry negative comments about you firm – this is something you may need to address either on the site in question or in other ways. Negative consumer comments is becoming such a problem for some businesses (in all sectors not just the law) that consultancies have appeared which specifically target the whole area of online reputation management.
- Find out if there are any free sites that your firm could feature in irrespective of which paid for sites you then choose to go with – with only a few exceptions, appearing in most of the sites if it is free can at worst be a neutral factor but could at best bring a referral of work.
- Look at the cost of being part of the site. Is it worth it in terms of the likely return to the firm? Are there any guarantees as to the number of referrals? What happens if the estimated number of referrals is not met?
- Look into the resource implications of all of the sites that you might potentially be interested in – consider what information they want from you in addition to any charge. You might, for example, not want to give a fixed fee for particular types of work.
- Look at how many other solicitors are on the site and who they are. Are you happy to be associated with those firms? Are they your natural competitors? Are you likely to succeed in any comparison with them? For example, if you deal only with high end conveyancing matters or provide a high level of service for which you charge appropriately are you likely to win any business when compared with cut-price conveyancers?
- Try and find out how many users access the site on a daily/weekly basis? If no one goes to the site then you are unlikely to benefit from being part of it?
- See how easy it is for users to find the site. You can do this, for example, by checking for back-links to the site using Google or by rating the site’s placing in Google against different common search terms likely to be used by those looking for a comparison web site.
- Assess the quality of the site. Does it look professional or put together in a hurry in someone’s spare bedroom? Is it likely to instil confidence amongst users of the site?
- Look at whether the site contains other information that might lead users to visit the site and, importantly, whether that information is correct. It will do your reputation no good to be associated with a web site that provides inaccurate information.
- Look into who is behind the web site – is it a large organisation likely to have the resources in order to develop and promote it or is it just someone who thought it would be a good idea to create a site in the hope that someone somewhere would pay them money?
- Consider how up to date the site is. Has it been updated recently? Is any information it carries up to date? A site that has been allowed to become out of date may have been abandoned by its operators and you are therefore unlikely to benefit from being on that site.
- Try and find out what your direct competitors, if you have any, are doing? Are they on any comparison sites? If so, why have they chosen those sites? If not, why not? It may be that they have looked into things and decided it is not cost effective or it may simply be that they have not got around to considering comparison sites.
- Does the site abide by the code of conduct established by the LSCP? Have they registered with the LSCP scheme?
Of course, these factors only address how you interact with these sites. They do not, for example:
- provide you with the tools you need to be able either to impress clients sufficiently that they are willing to say good things about you on a comparison site – that is a function of the quality of your work and client care;
- allow you to compete effectively with others on the comparison sites – that is something that will be predicated by your charging model, quality of work and breadth of service;
- give you the tools necessary to turn enquiries into clients – that depends upon the firms marketing and sales conversion skills;
- ensure that you will continue to make a profit – that is dependent upon whether you have been realistic in your charging v service levels.
Comparison web sites of all kinds are a growing feature of the legal landscape. The fact that you do not approve of them will not make them go away and the fact that you do not engage with them directly will not prevent your firm from being listed in them or, potentially, criticised by former clients on them.
Whether ultimately you do or do not make use of some or all of them is a decision for the firm based upon many of the factors dealt with above. However, it is strongly suggested that the decision you make be a researched and informed decision and not one simply based upon prejudice, apathy or lack of knowledge.
As with all things, unless you know where you are going you will never know whether you have got there – and this is as true with comparison sites as it is with any other aspect of law firm management.
i – http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/representation/research-trends/research-publications/applying-the-comparison-web-site-model-to-legal-services/
ii – http://www.fca.org.uk/news/tr14-11-price-comparison-websites-in-the-general-insurance-sector
iii – http://www.legalservicesconsumerpanel.org.uk/publications/research_and_reports/documents/ConsumerPanel_ComparisonWebsites_FinalReport.pdf
iv – Royal Commission on Legal Services – published on 3rd October 1979
v – http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/representation/research-trends/research-publications/applying-the-comparison-web-site-model-to-legal-services/ – Section 8 – p 43
vi – Agentquote.co.uk, Comparelegalcosts.com, Comparelegalsolutions.com, Contactlaw.co.uk, Conveyancingstore.co.uk, Icomparesolicitors.co.uk, Lawcomparison.co.uk, Lawyerlocator.co.uk, Legalcompare.com, Legallybetter.com, Legallyconfused.com, Rightsolicitor.co.uk, Solicitor.info, Takelegaladvice.com, Unbiased.co.uk, Wigster.com.