If you're opposed to price transparency, you're missing the point

Recent SRA research suggests that as many as 32% of law firms are still not fully complying with the Transparency Rules, despite being introduced over a year ago. Dave Seager argues that this reluctance flies in the face of how consumers now research and engage with firms - and why your website 'shop window' is now more crucial than ever.

Open sign in a shop window

The SRA Transparency Rules were part of a cycle of regulatory reform designed to simplify the rules for SRA-regulated firms and, crucially, make them more accessible and approachable for the consumer. The research of the Competitions and Market Authority (CMA), SRA and Legal Services Board indicated one of the main reasons that many consumers were not seeking help from solicitors (as few as one in 10) was the lack of plain, easy to understand information to assist them to make informed decisions. The Transparency Rules aimed to address the lack of clear information on “price, quality and service” based on the CMA’s recommendations.

The Rules currently apply to certain core services and, from November 2019, the online SRA digital badge that links consumers to information on the protection and advantages of dealing with a regulated legal services provider became compulsory. However, as we enter 2021, there is still resistance from the solicitor community, which feels that the requirement for a menu of services and prices, oversimplifies and even ‘dumbs down’ legal services.

I would argue that those who feel this way are entirely missing the point and are misunderstanding the SRA’s objective, which is to help them appeal to new clients, who might otherwise approach other legal services providers. It is an inescapable fact that we live in a ‘Google society’, and this applies to many more sectors than just legal services. Any professional service provider – including my own clients, the financial planning firms – must recognise that the first course of action for consumers in need of advice, who do not have an existing relationship with a provider, will be an internet search and research.

SRA research

The SRA published the findings from its own extensive research of consumers, SMEs and law firms in October 2020 and its findings are largely positive. Three-quarters of the 3,500+ consumers surveyed found the information now being published online helped them to make good choices. Originally, consumers were wary and mistrustful of solicitors not offering any indication of price, with over 50% believing this meant the price was likely too expensive. Now with prices on display, only 10% of those surveyed in 2020 believed this to be the case.

The real truth in the findings and, for me, the key point to acknowledge is to not think about displaying prices in isolation. Price becomes secondary to other key factors such as reputation, experience, and recommendations. So, it is not about doing the minimum, and it is certainly not sensible to have a separate menu with a description of each compulsory service and the likely price. The information needs to be front and centre on the appropriate section of your website for that service. In essence, price is only relevant if the value can be perceived and the value is found in how well the services are described – crucially, qualification, experience, referral, and local reputation all come into that assessment.

Having greater clarity on prices and their interaction with other factors enabled consumers to better research and compare different providers and to narrow down which firms they would wish to engage with.

The compulsory information should be made to look integral to your website and published alongside the full biographies of the solicitors and their teams who might deliver the service, their qualifications, accreditations and, crucially, current testimonials. The SRA research interestingly revealed that consumers do visit comparison sites and use comparison tools, but both business users and individuals place a higher value on testimonials or reviews on a firm’s own website.

Non-compliance

The SRA found – in my view, worryingly – that only 28% of the solicitor firms they interviewed (over 500) indicated they had embraced transparency and were applying the principles beyond the core services. Bravo to these 28%, which are far more likely to gain new clients who are researching online. Of course, all potential clients do this, but the younger end of the market do so more – winning those clients early should give you a longer-term client.

As many as 32% of firms said they were still not fully complying with the Transparency Rules, which seems foolhardy given the SRA’s commitment to enforcement and the huge publicity campaign targeted at consumers and consumer groups to raise awareness. (It has 40,000 Google adverts booked.) Also, whilst the SRA is clear that its initial aim is to assist firms to comply, it is equally clear that it will enforce the rules as necessary. I find the whole resistance to the idea so difficult to comprehend, particularly at a time when clients and potential clients are not able to pop into the office for a conversation. At this time, as I have said before, your website is your shop window, so the more appealing the window, the more likely a browsing consumer is to enter.

One final point I always make to both financial planners and solicitors, is that modern clients have complex problems, and advice will frequently require the expertise of both professions. This being the case, when modernising your website, take the opportunity to make potential clients aware that you work with carefully selected third parties.

Dave Seager is managing director of SIFA Professional, which provides business and marketing support to impartial independent financial advisers who work with solicitors. SIFA Professional is a partner of the Law Society. For more information, visit our offers page.

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