Softening the face of the legal sector: Can legal practices open up a dialogue in the face of damaged public opinion?

The old saying goes that law is the second oldest profession. While this might be hard to prove categorically, it is certainly true that the profession of law has been around long enough to root itself into the foundation of our society. Such a long and varied history comes with a shared cultural heritage, and the opinions and stereotypes surrounding the legal sector are deeply entrenched in the mind of the general public.

One of the prevailing stereotypes held about the legal sector is that it’s an arcane and secretive society. While the shadowy overtones of this stereotype are unfounded, there is some truth to this idea as the general public can feel excluded by the legal sector.

Old pillars of the community like banking and medicine have opened themselves up to modern customer service methods, but the relationship between solicitor and client can still feel like it has one foot planted in the 19th century.

Although confidentiality will always require a large portion of a legal practice to remain behind closed doors, is there scope for the legal sector to open up to the general public?

The price of law

In February of this year, the Centre for Policy studies released this report that looked into some of London’s top law firms. As the report states, these are some of the leading firms in the world, so it is to be expected that their rates are considerably higher than the average in the legal sector. However, it is the lack of transparency about legal costs, and lack of competition in pricing between these firms that the report calls into question.

The report states that partners in top London firms charge in excess of £1000 an hour, with the difference in hourly rates charged between firms varying by little more than 5%. The rapid rise in costs and apparent lack of competition is indicative of a market that isn’t functioning correctly.

The findings of the report gained traction in the press with responses being unsurprisingly negative. This article from the Independent shows that reaction to the report even went as far as to suggest that clients and businesses who can’t afford these costs are unable to fairly represent themselves in the legal world.

While this of course isn’t true and the majority of the legal sector provides excellent representation at competitive rates, the sentiments expressed make it clear that the public are suspicious as to what these high charges account for and what goes on and behind closed doors.

How opinion is affecting SMEs relationship with the legal sector

The suspicion of secrecy that the public holds about legal practices is beginning to affect how SME’s relate to the legal sector. The Federation of Small Businesses released a report earlier in the year that identified the ‘considerable failure’ of the legal sector, particularly in relation to ‘£100bn worth of unsatisfied legal needs’. As the FSB is representative of 200,000 small businesses in the UK this is a damning indictment of the current relationship between law firms and small businesses.

The report goes on to explain how many small business owners will avoid seeking professional help on a legal issue in favour of taking advice from friends and colleagues. One of the things the report identifies that turns small businesses away from legal assistance is ‘uncertain costs’. This is yet more proof that it is the apparent lack of transparency that is the greatest barrier for many people to have faith in professional legal services.

Softening the face of the legal sector

These reports show that time and time again it is the issue of secrecy and transparency that is a defining factor in what shapes public opinion about the legal sector. While this is a definite problem for legal practices, the upside to this issue is that there is a definable problem to solve.

In much the same way as high street banking did in the 1980’s and 90’s, the legal sector could benefit from a customer service model based on the retail industry. Banks realised that clients don’t want to put on their best suit to book an appointment with their bank manager about a loan. They want to talk to a friendly customer service agent who has up front and clear offers whether in branch, over the phone, or online.

If legal practices could open up an easier line of dialogue to prospective clients, even if this was just for initial inquiries, this would go a long way towards removing the perceived veil of secrecy that surrounds the legal system and the charges likely to be incurred for representation.

Although many legal practices may not have the infrastructure available to answer the calls of prospective clients, outsourcing call handling to a company like alldayPA Legal allows legal practices to offer the customer service that the public expect. By using a call handling service like alldayPA Legal public perception of a practice’s transparency and availability would improve, with nothing in the day to day running of the practice needing to change. In the face of current public opinion, it is certainly a promising prospect.

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