What is the importance of quality in purchasing decisions?

For individual consumers, the limited information available suggests that in the case of individual consumers different quality signifiers have different weight in purchasing decisions: “The Panel‟s research suggests that quality factors are not strongly influencing consumers’ choice of lawyer and that consumers wrongly assume that legal services are risk-free1“. Research in 2010 found that all solicitors were assumed to be technically competent and standardised high quality is assumed from any provider with a professional title2.

Reporting the findings of 40 in-depth interviews, research in 2010 found that solicitors were consistently ranked highly, as being most qualified and trustworthy among other advisers: “It was thought that solicitors would be most highly qualified of the professionals, but many thought that legal advisers, licensed conveyancers and professional will writers would also have some kind of legal qualification, although they were thought likely to offer better value for money. It was thought possible, therefore, that these professionals might offer similar skills, but for less money3“.

This research also found:

  • Consumers tend to go with a provider recommended by a firm, do limited research about different providers and are loyal to previous providers.
  • Consumers look for an established provider based on a recommendation from someone they trust, evidence that the provider is experienced in legal practice and evidence that a provider specialises in their required areas. Confirms service standards and price assessed after purchase.
  • Consumers expect all legal services to be regulated and have expected levels of protection similar to existing regulation. Consumers are unclear as to what represents good value for money.

Other research4 found that individual consumers judged quality along a number of dimensions:

  • Number of partners/offices – because of the desire to deal with one person, but not have that person swamped by a high caseload.
  • Local presence – ”this wasn‟t just related to having a physical presence on the High Street, but the reassurance that questions and contact would be carried out at a local level as well”.
  • Years in business.
  • Appearance of offices.
  • Professional looking website.

Looking at how individuals first heard about their provider gives some indication of what was important to them in choosing that provider. Research shows that: “The most common way of hearing about a provider was word of mouth or recommendation by family or friends, which was mentioned by 29% of users. A further 3% heard about their provider through knowing someone who worked there. The second most common way of knowing a provider was because the user or their family had used it in the past (23%). Collectively, these personal contacts and recommendations explain how 56% of users heard about their provider5.”

A detailed breakdown is shown in the table below.

How users first heard about main providerTotal %
Recommendation by family or friends29
User or family member had used provider before23
Referral by another organisation23
Saw local offices8
Responded to advertising or contact5
Searched for information5
Knew someone who worked there3
Other answers2

Why don’t individual consumers shop around for legal advice?

It is believed that because of the prevalence of reccomendations, consumer don’t shop around as they would in market where there were a range of different organisations offering the service. The main driver for consumers shopping around was reported to be the providers experience (58% mentioned in the top 3 characteristics), reputation (51%) and location (41%) were seen as the most important things that people looked for in a lawyer, followed by availability and then finally price6. 26% found their lawyer from a personal recommendation, 20% from previous experience and 15% from a referral arrangement, possibly best explaining why people do not shop around, as those that did shop around most shopped around on cost alone.7

These findings are supported by other research covering a wide range of different problems types:

  • A general survey of users of legal services showing the importance of specialism and recommendation8.
  • A survey of UK adults reported word of mouth recommendations are still the most important way to find a solicitor. However, some traditional channels for information on legal advice – Yellow Pages and other local directories – are becoming less important compared to new sources primarily on the Web. The second most important method of choosing a solicitor –mentioned by 21% of respondents – would be a Web search using one of the major search engines (i.e. Google, Yahoo etc)9.
  • Choice of solicitor in a police station: is reported to be driven by “five main categories: ‘good’, ‘outcome’, ‘relationship’, ‘recommendation’ and ‘other’. In the main, however, the responses can be separated into two key categories of wanting a ‘good solicitor’ and/or a ‘good relationship’10.
  • Research into conveyancing: “Recommendations are more important in selecting a lawyer than their specialist knowledge for conveyancing services11.  Another survey that found the most important factors when choosing a solicitor or conveyancer were 55% quality of service and VfM [Value for Money], 34% Price and only 11% recommendation by friend of family”.12
  • Research into Community Legal Advice Centres, established to offer free at the point of delivery services to consumers with social welfare law problems, found that clients who had not used the service before often described hearing about the CLAC through word of mouth, similar to wider legal service users. “However a key area was also logistical reasons – either because of its proximity to their home or work because it was the closest, because its local to us, or because the advice centre had convenient opening times13“. Interviewees also went to the CLAC because of their positive previous experiences, or because of the advisors perceived expertise in knowing how best to deal with their problems. The most common reason for attending the CLAC was other people directing or signposting: Interviewees frequently reported that they had gone to the CLAC on the basis of recommendations from a variety of people including friends.
  • The choice of adviser for people with debt problems is determined by similar factors, with one piece of research reporting that it is “quite common for respondents to seek advice on the basis of recommendations received from family, friends or other respected acquaintances, such as a psychiatric consultant. If respondents had been recommended a source of advice, tended to be the CAB”.14

What quality of advice measures are available?

For individual consumers, focus group research undertaken in 2010 found that: “Firstly, consumers generally assumed that all lawyers have an acceptable level of legal knowledge and have all passed sufficient qualifications. Secondly, there is a common belief that the law is relatively black and white (at least in terms of wills and conveyancing, though less so with divorce/separation) and that since all lawyers work from the same legal framework, the quality of advice offered will not vary significantly across firms”.

The same research found that a quality mark would have little influence on their purchasing decision “most consumers admitted that they would continue to put greater emphasis on personal recommendations or previous experience and that a quality mark might influence choices in only a small number of cases (namely where they did not have any recommendations or personal experience).15

In another survey, ”around four in ten of those sampled were not confident that they could judge how good a service from their lawyer was. Furthermore, two thirds would not know how to go about making a complaint if they were unsatisfied with the service they received the same proportion of people thought that they could not judge how good a service from an accountant was. More felt unable to judge service from MPs and financial advisers. Professions that consumers felt better able to judge included GPs, teachers and police officers.”

With regard to services used by individuals, in the past the Legal Services Commission16 (LSC) developed a range of quality measures looking at provider level competence. This was undertaken in the absence of other quality assurance information and in response to earlier research indicating that poor quality advice was more harmful than none at all. These measures included:

  • Checklist of certain elements within case files – Transaction Criteria – assessed by a sample audit of case files, no longer undertaken.
  • Audit of the management processes within a firm against best practice standards – The Quality Mark –assessed by on site audits. This is pass or fail test.
  • A review of a sample of case files to assess the quality of advice provided – Peer Reviews - undertaken by other solicitors. Peer Review results are ranked 1 – 5 (high to low) but the scores are not published17.

Every firm that has a legal aid contract will have to have met the Quality Mark standard and Peer Review are conducted on a targeted basis. Applying this to the 2010 SRA turnover data, shows that 31% of solicitors firms will have had been through this quality assurance process. However, this process is to provide the LSC with assurance about the quality of work as opposed to directly inform consumers about their choice of provider.

This quality assurance process has been reported to be “beneficial by Age Concern and key in securing funding and demonstrating the quality/legitimacy/ professionalism of Age Concern I&A services18“,  a finding which was echoed in more recent work to develop a quality assurance standard for advice agencies19.

Quality assurance mechanisms are also of  benefit to solicitors firms with the Law Society practice management standard, Lexcel being recognised by insurers as an effective risk management tool. In 2009 it was reported that Lexcel reduces the cost of insurance for those accredited20. In 2008 Lexcel was promoted as “enhancing the service given by a practice to its clients, to improve the management of the practice and the morale and motivation of its staff. Lexcel encourages practices to consult with clients to ensure that the views of the users of legal services have an impact on the way the service is delivered. There is an emphasis within the standard on continuous improvement21.”

The Bar Council developed a chambers level quality standard called the BARMARK. In 2008, 36 out of 343 chambers hold this quality assurance standard22.The LSC also developed a chambers level quality assurance standard Quality Mark for the Bar and in 2008 a total of 94 chambers held this standard – roughly 25% of chambers.23

Legal services are largely delivered by an individual, and a range of qualifications beyond professional membership are used.  For example the Law Society has developed a range of individual category based accreditation schemes where the individual undertakes additional qualifications. In 2010, 16% of solicitors belonged to at least one accreditation scheme and 18,000 legal professionals were members of these schemes24.There were additional incentives for individuals doing legal aid as accreditation provides the ability to charge higher rates or access further work in some categories of law, such as Immigration, Mental Health.

Because of concerns around the quality of advocacy and questions around the usefulness of existing quality assurance such as the QC badge, work has been ongoing since 2006 years to develop a Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates25.

Large businesses and Government have also developed thier own quality assurance process, for example with some organisations maintaining a list of preferred firm partnerships which is a form of quality signalling26. Other examples of quality measures include rankings in directories, such as Chambers Directory27. A consumer can purchase a directory which ranks the top lawyers (barrister and solicitors firms) by area of practice. These are all examples of consumers undertaking quality assurance process, or buying quality assurance, in response to a lack of credible information on the quality of legal service providers28.

Alternative measures have been suggested such as:

  • “In relation to legal aid, publication of outcomes might be a proxy standard of quality – i.e. 5% success rate for immigration cases versus 40-70% success rate on average.
  • Publication of complaints data.
  • Solicitors having to sit regular exams.
  • Compulsory CPD29

A detailed evaluation of the Quality assurance landscape has been undertaken by the Legal Services Consumer Panel in Quality in Legal Services – November 2010.

What is the range of the actual quality of legal advice?

The RIR found limited information in this area. Research shows that natural persons measure quality in terms of service, because of a lack of knowledge to be able to judge quality of advice.30

Individuals consistently show high levels of satisfaction with service received for example:

But this is not a proxy for quality of advice.

The Legal Services Commission data34 on peer reviews suggest that for legal aid providers between 91%-89% of solicitors firms provide competent advice. However this covers only 31% of all solicitors firms.

2005-2009 (2,762 reviews)2009-2011 (1,042 reviews)
Excellence13%2%
Competence Plus238%34%
Threshold Competence350%52%
Below Competence49%11%
Failure in perfromance50%1%

The limited ability to assess the range of quality of services offered is large gap in knowledge for the regulatory community.