Law Firms and the Regulation of Online Reviews and Client Feedback

The recent publication of an investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) into Online Reviews and Endorsements could well result in a change in attitudes from the legal profession towards its relationship with client feedback and online reputation based marketing activities.  

The report rightly highlights a number of concerns about the practices of some online shopping and review websites and those involved with them on a commercial basis. Some of the relevant legislation includes the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPRs) and the UK Advertising Codes.

To see the full CMA report into Online Reviews and Endorsements visit https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/436238/Online_reviews_and_endorsements.pdf)  

 

1) LegallyBetter’s view – collaboration and changing attitudes is vital

Whilst many of the issues raised may not (yet) be an issue in the UK legal services sector, we felt this was a good opportunity to ‘set out our stall’ on how LegallyBetter engages with law firms and what our aims for the future are. To that end extracts from the summary of the findings have been used to explain the principles by which we run the LegallyBetter client feedback service and website.

Before looking at the findings, a summary of our modus operandi.  

  • First and foremost we want to encourage the participation of law firms of all sizes into using the LegallyBetter website so they become more proactively involved in asking clients for feedback and discovering the commercial benefits of doing so.
  • At the moment LegallyBetter is simply an online portal to allow law firms to selectively publish feedback as they see fit. We currently provide a range of free services to assist with the collection, administration and promotion of feedback.
  • Once we feel we have engaged with law firms and demonstrated the value of requesting and using client feedback (and addressed specific issues such as perceptions about negative reviews – particularly important in an era of social media and online reputation management) then our policies may change to reflect as accurately as possible the views of clients and their experiences with the legal services sector.

To see the full CMA report into Online Reviews and Endorsements visit https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/436238/Online_reviews_and_endorsements.pdf)  

Next, down to the details – consumers trust review websites

LegallyBetter has signed up to the good-practice standards for legal comparison websites, developed by the Legal Services Consumer Panel. This site has assessed itself against the Legal Services Consumer Panel’s standards for comparison websites, and considers that it complies with those standards.  The standards reflect best practice in areas such as accessibility, independence, choice, accuracy, use of personal information and complaints handling.  Please note that the website has not been independently assessed to check compliance.  For more information on the standards visit the Legal Services Consumer Panel's website.

2) Consumers trust review websites

The text in italics has been extracted from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) into Online Reviews and Endorsements report.

“Consumers that use online reviews appear to trust them and they appear to be an important source of information for consumers’ buying decisions. Further, most consumers said that the product or service purchased after reading reviews matched up to their expectations.”

LegallyBetter’s perspective:  

  • This is most important and a vote of confidence for review sites. It would be quite easy for law firms to be dissuaded from active involvement with client feedback, especially given the vocal minority of practitioners and commentators ready with their objections to review sites. In the legal services sector it is true that no one site has caught the imagination in the way that the powerful sites such as TripAdvisor or Amazon have are able to set the agenda in terms of how they use feedback and engage with their customer and suppliers. We all use these sites, and there is no reason why law firms should not be subject to the same assessment of their service. After all legal advice is not an everyday purchase, reviews are particular helpful in these circumstances and the internet is most peoples starting point whatever they may be interested in.
  • It is a fact that consumers use and trust review sites.  However as experts in the arena we also know from experience that when left to their own devices consumers rarely bother to provide feedback and those that do tend to be at the polarised extremes of opinion.  The vast majority of ‘normal’ consumers (including business clients) that sit in the middle of the ‘satisfaction extremes’ quite simply don’t bother.
  • Example:  The use of postage pre-paid cards (one of LegallyBetter feedback ‘tools’) results in a 15% response rate AT BEST.  Electronic feedback requests achieve much lower response rates.  A managed service (also a Legally Better service), frequently achieves better than 90% response rates.  Ironically the larger sample typically includes more mediocre reviews and average client satisfaction.

In the course of our work we have seen some developments in the reviews sector that could have the potential to improve outcomes for consumers.

  • Some sites have developed systems to: detect and verify fake reviews;
    • LegallyBetter analyses every review that it receives. We use human beings as our preferred technology. The site is relatively specialised and does not have to handle large quantities of reviews at the present time.
  • … and identify and give greater prominence to reviews likely to be more helpful;
    • All reviews are treated equally, but a law firm’s listing on the site will be prioritised according to the number of reviews they have and the average client satisfaction score.
  • …and enable users to flag suspicious-looking reviews themselves.
    • As mentioned above, our human admin team is able to detect reviews that might appear not at they should be – this could include suspicious looking email addresses. We make the law firm aware of all reviews that are received.

Another interesting development is the entry into the sector of a number of providers that offer to manage the collection, verification and publication of reviews on behalf of retailers, service providers and other businesses.

  • This indeed is the service that is offered by LegallyBetter. With the best will in the world the average law firm is not going to have the time or inclination to realistically get involved in requesting, administering and verifying client feedback. We take on this role for them for obvious reasons – it is in everyone’s interest for law firms to have their reputation being actively promoted online – not least for prospective clients looking for legal advice.

Additional observation from LegallyBetter:  

  • There is another concern in this area – clients have every right to provide feedback and remain anonymous.  It is relatively easy to identify genuine but anonymous feedback from the improvement suggestions that are made.  Where this is accompanied by an equally genuine and heartfelt positive statement it is logical that this should be published to aid other consumers in their quest to know what level of service they can expect to receive. 

Next, activities that are of concern the Competition and Markets Authority

LegallyBetter has signed up to the good-practice standards for legal comparison websites, developed by the Legal Services Consumer Panel. This site has assessed itself against the Legal Services Consumer Panel’s standards for comparison websites, and considers that it complies with those standards.  The standards reflect best practice in areas such as accessibility, independence, choice, accuracy, use of personal information and complaints handling.  Please note that the website has not been independently assessed to check compliance.  For more information on the standards visit the Legal Services Consumer Panel's website.

3) Practices (activities) that concern the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA)

The text in italics has been extracted from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) into Online Reviews and Endorsements report.

Review sites ‘cherry-picking’ positive reviews, or suppressing negative reviews that they collect and/or display, without making it clear to readers that they are presenting a selection of reviews only.

Omitting other consumers’ negative views may present a false overall impression of consumers’ experiences of using a product or service. This has the potential to mislead users of a review site and affect their choices.

Review sites’ moderation processes potentially causing some genuine negative reviews not to be published. It appears that some sites may not be publishing some genuine negative reviews and instead encourage businesses to take action to resolve the customer’s complaint.

  • Given that we are dealing with lawyers, LegallyBetter have no wish to be sued because we have inadvertently published a review that may be regarded as libellous, factually incorrect or breaches confidentiality. At the present time it is the law firm’s decision on what is or isn’t published.
  • Legal advice tends to be about important decisions in life and consequently involves a lot of emotion that can have a significant impact on the client’s life. The client may only be concerned with the outcome or how they were treated during that process.
  • There are a great many commercial and business development benefits to doing a great deal more, but as stated above many law firms quite simply do not (yet) see the commercial benefits of finding out what their clients genuinely think of the service levels delivered let alone using the positive feedback to feed reputation-based marketing activities.
  • One of the advantages of LegallyBetter’s approach is the relevance of the review content to the search results. Feedback is one thing; feedback that is relevant and visible to potential clients looking for legal advice is another.

This might lead to a good outcome for the individual customer who left the review; however, we are concerned that other consumers looking at these review sites are getting a less complete picture of what reviewers have said about a business. This could mean that they do not make the best choice for them, particularly if they are not aware that this practice is taking place.

These sorts of practices may breach the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPRs) and the UK Advertising Codes.2 They may also prevent consumers from choosing the product or service that best suits their needs because the information provided does not show the whole picture – with some businesses losing custom as a result.

  • LegallyBetter does not claim to be a directory of law firms; it displays feedback from those law firms that choose to make use of the site.
  • No comparison site can claim to list all law firms. Currently only a small proportion of the firms listed on the LegallyBetter website have reviews but this is being added to all the time. We are in active dialogue with many law firms, adding new listings on a weekly basis and encouraging all to actively request genuine feedback from their clients and to publish the evidence, (good and bad), for all to see.
  • Any review received independently of the law firm by a client is forwarded onto the law firm so that they are aware of what is being said about them. Anonymous reviews remain anonymous though if the review is submitted then it is intended for publication and the law firm may well be able to identify who the reviewer is.
  • An email address is required for a review to be submitted to the LegallyBetter site. Sites such as Amazon are able to promote ‘verified purchase’ reviews to offer added credibility, something that is not always possible in a legal transaction. 

Lastly, LegallyBetter’s perspective on the CMA best practice for review sites.

LegallyBetter has signed up to the good-practice standards for legal comparison websites, developed by the Legal Services Consumer Panel. This site has assessed itself against the Legal Services Consumer Panel’s standards for comparison websites, and considers that it complies with those standards.  The standards reflect best practice in areas such as accessibility, independence, choice, accuracy, use of personal information and complaints handling.  Please note that the website has not been independently assessed to check compliance.  For more information on the standards visit the Legal Services Consumer Panel's website.

4) Best practice guidance for review sites

The text in italics has been extracted from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) into Online Reviews and Endorsements report.

Be clear about how reviews are collected and checked;

  • Reviews can be submitted for any law firm - they don’t need to have a listing already set up on the site. The reviewer can either provide their name or submit their views anonymously. All feedback received is reviewed by our admin team and the law firm involved is always advised.
  • We bring to the attention of the law firm named all reviews received – but it is their decision whether to publish. In certain circumstances, where agreed in advance, if the review is positive we may publish the review for the law firm and advise them that that has happened.
  •  We are working with participating law firms regarding the publication of anonymous reviews – many reviewers prefer to remain anonymous, but the issue of verification remains an issue.
  • Where a review is submitted anonymously we cannot make a rational decision as to what to do with this feedback. If we don’t know the source, the decision to publish is down to the law firm in question.

Publish all reviews, even negative ones, provided they are genuine and lawful, and explain the circumstances in which reviews might not be published or might be edited (e.g. swearing, abusive language or defamatory remarks);

  • As explained above, we have no wish to be sued and we are not qualified to get into the finer points of libel and defamation so the current position is for LegallyBetter to give law firms the right to verify and select which feedback is published. Underpinning this stance though is a proactive campaign to encourage law firms to publish all feedback that can be verified as genuine and not offensive in any way.

Make sure that there is not an unreasonable delay before reviews are published;

  • Our systems provide an automated reminder when a review is received.

Disclose any commercial relationships with businesses that appear on their site, and explain how this might affect businesses’ ratings and/or rankings;

  • LegallyBetter is completely independent of any other organisation and is therefore able to obtain feedback and insights for client law firms that they themselves may not be able to get. The site is based on a template used by http://business-advisor.org.uk and where relevant reviews are shared between the sites. Service providers to law firms are also listed on both sites and their feedback displayed as well.

Clearly identify all advertising and paid promotions, including when reviews have been paid for;

  • At the time of writing there are no adverts or paid promotions on the site and there are no plans to change this position for the foreseeable future.  The focus is on marketing the site to law firms to get reviews, case studies etc added to the site.  Some of the tools and services to assist law firms to request, process and publicise feedback are optional paid for extras, the core tools that are integral to LegallyBetter are all provided free of charge to all law firms on a like for like basis.

Have in place appropriate procedures to detect and remove fake reviews, and act and act promptly in response to reports of suspected fake reviews.

  • We use human technology – at the moment it’s the one that works best, and our team are highly experienced in identifying anything suspicious looking.
  • Any feedback that is believed to be false is not published does not get included in any average score rating statistics that are published in order to ensure that false feedback or feedback not from a genuine client does not end up published in error.

LegallyBetter has signed up to the good-practice standards for legal comparison websites, developed by the Legal Services Consumer Panel. This site has assessed itself against the Legal Services Consumer Panel’s standards for comparison websites, and considers that it complies with those standards.  The standards reflect best practice in areas such as accessibility, independence, choice, accuracy, use of personal information and complaints handling.  Please note that the website has not been independently assessed to check compliance.  For more information on the standards visit the Legal Services Consumer Panel's website.