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Successfully navigating online comparison and review

Emma Walker discusses the challenges of online comparisons and reviews for law firms and their staff

Posted on 04 October 2021

At the start of July 2021, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) reported that proactively publishing information on key indicators of service quality, such as customer reviews, helps the public when they are looking for a legal services provider and should help firms win more business. 

According to the regulator, its research has regularly shown that the quality of the service trumps price when potential clients choose a legal services provider, but that finding reliable information on quality can be challenging.

Piloting progress

Some months prior, the SRA started a pilot involving law firms and comparison website providers (Trustpilot; The Law Superstore; Review Solicitors; Legal Utopia; Really Moving; REVIEWS.io; Solicitor.info; Chawker; Search4legal).

Working alongside the Council for Licensed Conveyancers, CILEx Regulation and the Bar Standards Board, the pilot aims to encourage greater use of online information in the legal sector, including through comparison websites and online review platforms. The initial focus is on conveyancing and employment law services – two of the practice areas required to publish pricing information under the SRA’s transparency rules. The SRA has decided to extend the pilot beyond the original six months it planned for and to more firms.

The SRA offers an information sharing service enabling websites that already publish customer reviews and other information on legal service providers to access and publish publicly available regulatory information on firms the SRA regulates. It also developed a voluntary code of conduct for comparison websites taking part in the pilot that sets out the standards it expects of participating sites, so that they behave independently, transparently and fairly to consumers and legal services providers.

Sharing is caring

According to the SRA, actively encouraging clients to leave an online review, for example, by providing them with a link to a review website, will demonstrate that firms care about what their clients think and their experiences and increase the number of reviews available to prospective clients.

The regulator adds that by welcoming and responding professionally to feedback, firms can show they are open and transparent about the experiences their clients have and that “this can create a good impression for other prospective clients and help you secure repeat business from those clients leaving reviews.”

Considering confidentiality

The SRA has indicated that it is fine for a firm to respond to and comment on an online review left by a current or former client, provided it does not disclose confidential or privileged information.
If a client leaves a review that includes confidential or privileged information, the firm can respond via the website that published the review, provided it does not disclose details beyond those that the client has disclosed.

The SRA suggests that if the firm is unsure, it may simply acknowledge the review and contact the client directly about their feedback.

The SRA has published guidance called “Confidentiality of client information” it says will help firms understand their obligations in relation to keeping clients’ information confidential.

There are, however, other ethical considerations firms will need to consider in relation to online reviews from clients and these appear absent from the review rhetoric being championed by the SRA, the Legal Services Board and Competition & Markets Authority.

For example, there will be instances where clients will not want or cannot provide details about themselves or their case on a public platform. This might include where a client has agreed to confidentiality clauses in respect of a settlement or where revealing they have received advice from a specific legal services provider could pose a risk to their safety.

Lawyers will need to be alive to the risks to their clients, in order to be able to advise them appropriately, before they engage with online reviews.

Responding constructively to constructive criticism

The SRA recommends firms “respond to all negative reviews” and that “reviews are more balanced when a business can concede it may have made mistakes but has made attempts to address them”.

The regulator adds: “Negative online reviews can provide opportunities for firms to concede that it has made a mistake, but show what it has done to address them. This can be powerful information for prospective clients.”

Where the SRA is silent is in specifying whether it will pay active attention to negative reviews from clients or responses from firms.

In contrast to the SRA’s recommendations, when the American Bar Association issued a formal opinion for US Attorneys on how to respond to negative reviews earlier in the year it suggested: “As a best practice, lawyers should consider not responding to a negative post or review because doing so may draw attention to it and invite further response from an unhappy critic.”

Quite how regulated professionals in this jurisdiction will decide how to respond to negative reviews will no doubt be case-specific. What the SRA has made clear is that when responding to reviews, those it regulates must be careful to maintain professionalism, be aware of and act in accordance with the obligations placed on them by the Standards and Regulations. It also directs individuals to its warning notice on “Offensive communications”, which aims to help those regulated by the SRA understand their obligations and how to comply with them.

The SRA does not expect that firms will pressurise clients or website providers to retract a negative review or one it disagrees with. The Principles require firms (and those working in them) to act in a way that upholds public trust and confidence in the solicitors’ profession and in legal services provided by authorised persons (Principle 2).

Regulation 1.2 of both the Code of Conduct for Solicitors, Registered European Lawyers and Registered Foreign Lawyers and the Code of Conduct for Firms stipulates that regulated individuals do not abuse their position by taking unfair advantage of clients or others.

Spotting a fake

Where firms believe an online review is fake, in that it is not from a current or former client, they can contact the website hosting the review to ask them to follow the procedures they have in place to deal with such reviews.

Dealing with defamation

Where firms believe a review has been left by a client and that it is defamatory it can:

  • Do nothing and wait for other clients to leave reviews on the same website, providing potential clients with a richer picture of views and experiences
  • Contact the website operator to explain and enquire about procedures available to remove the review
  • Respond to the review
  • Take legal action against the reviewer

The SRA reminds firms that where they do pursue legal action they must continue to behave professionally and in accordance with their regulatory obligations. It also suggests that potential clients could be deterred from instructing a firm if they feel it has been heavy-handed with a dissatisfied client.

Practice makes perfect

The recent case of Summerfield Browne v Waymouth [2021] EWHC 85 (QB) provides an example of the issues, responses and possible outcomes for others to consider.

The law firm involved brought a defamation claim against a former client after they left a Trustpilot review. In a summary judgment by Master Cook, a ‘substantial’ number of clients were said to have been put off by the review and general damages (totalling £25,000) and costs were awarded against the former client.

Trustpilot was also ordered to remove the defamatory review, but the online platform, which was not a party to the proceedings, said it would challenge the court’s order if it was served with it.

Trustpilot was reported to have stated that it had not been contacted by the firm, adding that: “While the circumstances of this case are highly unusual, the outcome will ultimately not lead to a positive position for anyone – consumers or businesses – and it is much better for businesses to engage, respond and improve upon the feedback they receive, rather than using legal action to silence consumers.”

Whilst the positive positions work themselves out, what is clear is that rehearsing the right responses is something all actors on the online stage could benefit from.

A version of this article was first published in the September 2021 edition of the Solicitor’s Journal (Volume 164 No.8).