Should solicitors be forced to display prices on their websites?

Following on from Nigel Haddon’s interview, Jackie Emmerson Managing Director at Emmerson Solicitors has shared her views with Today’s Conveyancer about price transparency.

The Solicitors Regulatory Authority determined that solicitors should be transparent in their pricing. And thus everyone is now expected to display their prices on their website! It would seem that there were some clients who were put off because they didn’t know how much legal services would cost. So in an attempt to make life easier for those folks we must all display a whole menu of prices. Does this work, is it a good idea?

I have chatted about this on LinkedIn and on various solicitors forums and the overwhelming view seems to be that it’s an utter waste of time. We are a profession, and I would say that the vast majority take our responsibilities to our clients seriously. Years ago it was made clear to us by our various regulators that we must be clear in our pricing at the beginning of a case and throughout the life of that case. As far as possible there should be no surprises when it comes to final costs in a case.

Every firm that I have ever worked for has had client care letters. Included in those letters will be detailed pricing. Hourly rates used, or fixed fees for certain tasks. Plus an estimate of final costs to include VAT and third party payments such as court fees and barristers fees. We offer initial appointments or telephone discussions so that we can take details and then provide a price. So I really don’t see why it’s necessary to have online headline pricing. Because frankly, that’s all it can be. Similar to 80% cream wool carpets from £10.00 per metre.

Our pricing comes with a caveat –  Please note that these are our usual range of prices. However, your case may be more complicated. Therefore at the start of every case we will give you a written estimate as to costs. Please note that this will be an estimate rather than a fixed quote as we cannot predict if a case suddenly becomes more complicated due to factors beyond our, or your, control.

I, like my clients, am a consumer. I understand that if I am going to the supermarket to buy a tin of beans then it will be fairly easy to work out the price of those beans. But to be frank the price of beans does change on an almost weekly basis. When you get to the supermarket there may be offers on. I buy beans when they are four cans for £2.00, I don’t buy them when they are £2.50 for the same product. Surely venturing out to the supermarket is exactly the same as ringing a firm of solicitors. Except that I actually have to go to the supermarket to see what’s going on. It’s a lot  less effort to ring a law firm.

To my way of thinking, the SRA don’t seem to trust us. I feel as if I’m being treated as a pushy salesperson. Is there some fear that the poor client if they ring us will be forced into using our services? We are professionals, and like all other professionals we have standards. Our clients often don’t know what they don’t know. So how on earth could they choose from a menu on a website and determine the price.

Let’s take the example of probate. This is an absolute classic for clients not knowing what is involved in a case. The family may have sorted out all of the bills, such as utility bills and council tax and  they will advise us that nearly everything has been done, it’s a simple case.  But have they any idea as to IHT rates, the history of their relative’s financial dealings, do they know how to trace old accounts, to look for overpayments from bank accounts. To spot a sneaky relative who may have taken “loans” from the deceased. Do they understand that they may need to account to the DWP for the overpayment of state benefits. How on earth do you list all of those items on a price list on your website?

What clients need is our best estimate as to costs in a probate matter. They need to know asap if we uncover something that is going to lead to a lot more work. The hidden house, the secret child, the overseas assets, the list is endless. They also want to know how long it will take to settle matters and they need to have some trust in you as their professional advisor. They are not young children too frightened to pick up the phone to contact a solicitor in the first instance. If they don’t like the cut of your jib when they ring for advice then they will vote with their feet and go elsewhere.

Back to me as a consumer. I went to buy carpets recently. Now, having purchased many carpets in the past I knew that I wanted an 80/20 wool mix. But I didn’t know that when I bought my first house. An experienced carpet salesman explained the virtue of the same. I trusted him he knew his product  and he was right, long lasting hard wearing carpets but more expensive than100% man made fibres. On my recent excursion I was given the option of the same carpet in 40, 50 and 60 weights with or without a stain barrier, with or without underlay, with high quality or lower quality underlay. Was the carpet shop forced to list on their website every one of these connotations, would I have understood if they did, no! Was I too frightened to approach the carpet shop because they didn’t have a never ending menu on their website as to their prices? No, I’m a consumer. I need carpets, I’ve got to suck it up and go and ask for the price for the type of carpet that I want. The salesman was kind, he was helpful, he knew his stuff. He is the expert in selling carpets.

You are all experts in legal services, you are skilled, you are trustworthy professionals, you know your stuff. So why would a client be put off contacting you because you don’t have a menu on your website. The menu does not help with the bespoke service and pricing that you need to offer a client, that requires a conversation.


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    Bespoke services are an exception

    Consumers readily buy off-the-peg

    Conveyancers need to accept this

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    I don’t see that there is any harm in a conveyancers website providing an accurate interactive quote tool. Don’t kid yourselves that you need to be sales people. You’re in an industry where people just come and buy IF you simple ask if they want to get on with things. Give them an accurate price and then, if you have a resource available (first contact/file openers) they follow up and ask for the business…. did the figures make sense? Shall we proceed and send you all the paperwork to get started?
    No one wants or needs an in depth conversation, it is only the industries perception that it is required.

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    “Bespoke services are an exception”? Really? What a very unusual conveyancing practice you must work in.

    Actually, we usually do not vary from the the original estimate given, but that does not mean the service is not bespoke. Or maybe you think we should just ignore common land, lack of easements, wayleaves, obtaining occupier’s waivers and other similar matters, just so a client can have an “off the peg” service?

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      You must not think that clients only compare conveyancing services with other conveyancing services. Clients have a more holistic approach which you need to recognize

      I worked for an institutional property investor – an insurer. The insurance department issued cover instantly on an off-the-peg basis. The lawyers took a bespoke approach to leases. Comparison was common. And could involve a belief that the restrictive statutory trade practices for conveyancing encouraged make-work/fees

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    The problem with fixed prices for professional services is that the lowest fee is given. This is because, the public not knowing what the job involves, will simply pick the cheapest. That creates a race to the bottom which is what has happened. In my 50 years of dealing with residential conveyancing the job has gone from a proper branch of law to an appallingly handled admin. exercise.

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