What can we take from the LSB’s latest findings? And where next for the legal profession?

By Matthew Briggs In About TLS

Here’s the headline you will have found hard to miss if you have been reading the legal trade publications this week: “Firms setting fixed fees and publishing them online are likely to be cheaper than their competitors.”

This will hardly surprise anyone within the profession. After all, it stands to reason that if a firm intends to publish a price it will be the best rate they can offer. Nor is it surprising that the responses on forums have largely warned against a dangerous race to the bottom or over-commoditisation of valuable legal services.

However, there is more to this research than first meets the eye. And I for one am glad that this kind of survey is being done. Not because I believe that fixed fees need to be adopted by all firms for all services (I certainly don’t), but because I’m happy to have this issue opened for discussion.

At the very least, the LSB has taken steps to investigate the state of the profession’s relationship with clients. If nothing else it offers us a starting point from which we can look to progress and move the industry forward.

Here are some of the key details of note:

  • 1,500 law firms surveyed
  • 15 common legal services for individual clients assessed
  • Pricing varied by at least 37% between cheapest and most expensive
  • South-East significantly more expensive than the North
  • Firms with advertised prices on their website were likely to offer a cheaper service
  • Fixed fee firms were cheaper than those using variable fees

Ahead of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) results from this summer, the LSB’s findings set the tone for further discussion about whether law firms should be forced to reveal their prices upfront.

The LSB chief executive, Neil Buckley, was quick to point out that the research findings were not intended to suggest that cheaper providers were better for clients, nor that firms should look to cut pricing as a direct response to the survey. What is clear, however, is that there is a very real demand for transparency amongst clients – something you will know I am a passionate advocate for if you have been reading my recent articles.

While many of the forum comments I have seen are quick to point out that fixed fees were a loss-leader or an impossible task in cases of varying complexities and individual requirements, there are two key points I wish to make.

The first is that the adverse implications of withholding costs altogether are far greater than when providing some information.

The man or woman on the street today expects to know where they stand and how much they can expect to pay for a service or product. While I empathise completely with those legal service providers who do not wish to have their profession to be considered as a generic service, the simple fact is that without information at their fingertips, the modern client will simply turn their back on a service altogether.

Whether it’s a train timetable or the latest football scores, the Internet has led us all to demand universal accessibility and transparency. For that reason, a starting price and a basic fixed fee rate represent an important benchmark – and one that this survey shows is having a significant impact on the purchasing habits.

While I don’t mean to suggest that it will singlehandedly close the “Access Gap” referred to by the LSB or unlock the entire latent legal market, fixed fees do play an important role in building relationships between legal service providers and clients. Why? Because currently individuals simply don’t inquire about a service they believe they cannot afford.

The second point I wish to make is that the profession faces a single, important challenge: to create a fast, efficient and open system for acquiring new business that does not undermine the integrity of firms. And that is a challenge that we have sought to overcome at The Law Superstore over the last 12 months.

Having consulted at length with legal service providers and consumers, we understand that there is both a demand for a comparison website that can connect a client need with a list of service providers in under a minute and a need to prevent a purely price driven system. We understand that squeezing firms will only take the profession down the path of corner cutting and poor quality work.

Our focus has been on empowering the Partner firms to promote themselves effectively, on their terms. This includes listing benefits such as extended opening hours, accreditations, location, firm size, languages spoken and parking availability, among others.

It also means offering a range of pricing models that are both transparent and flexible so as to not constrict a legal service provider. To facilitate this, fixed fee pricing can be exchanged for a fixed fee with capped hours or hourly rates across an individual service depending upon case complexity. This gives real protection for a provider.

Most importantly of all, we have built a client review and rating system into the fabric of our site. This step not only benefits a site user’s ability to make the right decision but also gives Partners the confidence that the quality of their work is what will win them the newest business.

To quote LSB strategy director, Caroline Wallace,

“This is a market where it is not just price that counts, but levels of service too.”

For those still sceptical of the changes being predicted in the profession, I would say this: trial The Law Superstore in 2016 and give yourself the ability to make an informed choice.

The Law Superstore enables you to experiment with pricing models, services, opening hours and many other selling points. The platform is entirely free to feature and you may close your account or amend your service offering at any time.

Just don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

The Law Superstore will be entirely free of fees during the launch month of August, giving Partner firms access to new business at no cost whatsoever. If you would like to find out more, visit www.thelawsuperstore.co.uk/partners

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