Will Solicitors finally be fans of transparency now?

Since introducing the SRA’s Transparency rules in November 2019, SIFA Professional, whom we are proud to be members of, have been advocates of law firms going further than the regulatory essentials. With all the accepted research showing that consumers are increasingly researching online for the best professional to service their legal requirements, why would a firm not wish to showcase its talents, team, and comprehensive service on its website for a fair price?

Reluctance on Transparency

However, the findings of the SRA would suggest that even now, over 5 years on, not all solicitor firms are choosing to embrace the research behind transparency or what it should help them gain – that is, new clients! Those reluctant firms were probably not the biggest fans of the Competition and Markets Authority, whose research. was the driving force behind the regulator’s push for clarity and openness. Perhaps that indifference or resentment towards the CMA may now be about to change….

New CMA Guidelines for non-regulated legal service providers

The CMA, following on from their ongoing, (since July 2023,) investigation into unregulated legal businesses which provide online divorce, will-writing and pre-paid probate services, have announced new guidelines such providers will be expected to adhere to. The guidelines aim to protect consumers and the CMA suggests non-compliance will incur penalties.

The CMA’s draft guidelines specifically for providers of such unregulated legal service usher in a new consultation on its content, and have three main objectives:

  • Ensure consumers always have the information they need to make informed decisions.
  • Provide fair terms and conditions between providers of unregulated legal services and consumers.
  • Stop, what they label ‘sales’ practices which are misleading, aggressive, or otherwise contrary to statutory obligations.

Concerns at misleading of unlawful practices

Objective 1 bears obvious similarity to the SRA’s approach to transparency, which is not surprising, but it is the 2nd and 3rd that should be well received by, even, the most hitherto, cynical solicitor. The CMA investigation into these unregulated services was born out of concerns that providers of these services were, at best, potentially misleading the researching consumer, or at worst, in breach of consumer law.

Examples of such misleading practices were advertising low headline initial fees without clear indications of future costs;  the use of potentially unfair contract terms, such as exclusions of liability, failure to provide cancellation rights, and terms which automatically appoint the firm as executor (often for a fee); and reports of pressure selling and coercion of vulnerable customers.

In its current draft form, the CMA guidance is available to review here. It includes specific sections on will writing, divorce and pre-paid probate with clear ‘do and don’t’ advice, checklists, and case studies. The guidance strongly requests that all fees are clearly set out and should include likely expenses or associated costs; state the business is unregulated; be clear about what work is completed in-house and if any part of the service is outsourced to third parties. Importantly the unregulated business must make sure that consumers are aware of professional qualifications held by consumer-facing individuals.

A levelling of the playing field to be welcome by solicitors

This approach will surely be welcomed by the professional side of legal services and the wider professional community, who have become increasingly disillusioned with the unregulated section of legal services contributing to the increasing levels of contested wills, and dissatisfied divorcees, who perhaps opted for the cheap headline rate for a quick, online split, and found themselves financially worse off, without hope of redress.

SRA-regulated firms might well have felt aggrieved at the required transparency, whilst the unregulated competition could be opaque, or even liberal with the truth about their own services, whilst undercutting them. Hopefully, they will be grateful to see some balance restored and will be able to take advantage and truly promote their full services, which will almost always be more comprehensive and arguably far less likely to leave a client unhappy, dissatisfied or financially worse off down the line.

Strong dos and don’ts

The wording of the dos and don’ts in the guidance is very strong in the areas of will-writing and online divorce for example and really leaves little doubt as to what the CMA, and probably most solicitors believe has been happening in recent times.

For example, on will-writing: Do not make misleading comparisons when marketing your services, for example by comparing the (higher) cost of a bespoke service provided by a solicitor with your (lower) cost.

And for online divorce: Do not make misleading comparisons with competing services where your service is not in fact comparable (for example, comparing the (lower) cost of a limited, generic online divorce service with the cost of engaging the advice of a specialist family solicitor without making clear the differences between these two services).

Time to take advantage and showcase your talents?

At FB Wealth we would only ever refer to and work with regulated firms and we hope that such quality solicitor practices, offering such services, with fuller support and bespoke advice will welcome the proposed new guidance. You may even take the opportunity to add your thoughts to the CMA’s consultation.

Furthermore, as we suggested in our title, we hope more solicitors, now the playing field is being somewhat levelled, or at least tilted in their favour, will see the benefits of clarity in the promotion of their, more often than not, superior services. With more and more consumers beginning their research online, your website is your shop window, so it pays to dress it well, which might include the fact that you work with other professionals when complementary advice is required.

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