Law School as a Consumer Product: Beat ’em or Join ’em?

Abstract:

With rising costs, pressure on performance metrics and competitive high-profile rankings, law schools are more than ever before being judged on a consumer satisfaction basis by both students and the public. While this perception has been growing over the past two decades, it has reached a crisis point in legal education. When students have their choice of educational institutions, they may act like consumers, and choose to spend their money based on metrics that satisfy them as buyers. This consumer mindset not only impacts admissions, but also can play out in the retention of students. The loss of students transferring out can take a serious toll on a law school, including potential detriments in bar passage, productive classrooms, the loss of future high performing alumni, and the cost of replacing the tuition generation. Schools are thus pressured to address the consumer issue.

Many of the conflicts that arise as between students as consumers, and their institutions, are not necessarily based in the substance of rules. Instead, much of the complaints can easily stem from the institution’s transparency and communication about various aspects of the educational experience, from in the classroom, to a student’s prospects on the job market. As such, institutions should be considering the student perspective in formulating how they present their program of education, and the various aspects within it.

While others have asked the question outright whether college students are consumers, this article does not debate whether law students treat their institutions with a consumer mindset. It presumes they do and seeks to solve the problem for institutions. Part II of this article summarizes how this mindset arose in education and specifically how it arose in legal education, and examines previous conflicts between students and institutions as a result. Part III examines different areas of law school operations where traditional academic mindset and student consumer mindset may clash, and offers solutions and strategies as to where and how the consumer pressure should be embraced to make institutional change, and where it should be resisted to ensure the consumer pressure does not result in changes that are not in students’ best long-term interests. Part IV offers some conclusions on the approach.

Citation:

Vollweiler, Debra Moss, Law School as a Consumer Product: Beat ’em or Join ’em? (July 10, 2019). Available at SSRN.

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UK Competition and Markets Authority to research Scottish legal services market

The Competition and Markets Authority has issued the following press release regarding its impending research into certain aspects of the Scottish legal services market to support the Scottish Government’s response to the Roberton Review.


The following release was published 17 June 2019.

This work has been prompted by the Roberton Review, an Independent Review of Legal Services Regulation in Scotland, and will provide evidence to assist the Scottish Government in determining how to take forward the recommendations made by that report. Led by Esther Roberton, that Review made a number of recommendations, including that there should be a single independent body to regulate the legal profession, set standards and handle complaints.

Building on work already done as part of the Competition and Market Authority’s (CMA) market study into the supply of legal services in England and Wales, this work will examine whether there is evidence of a lack of competition among legal services providers in Scotland, as was the case in England and Wales.

The research will also focus on:

  • the benefits of independent regulation of legal services in Scotland and whether the current institutional arrangement – where the bodies regulating the professions are also those representing and lobbying for them – dampens competition
  • the impact of the current legal services regulatory framework in Scotland on competition, particularly on innovation and the entry of new business models to the market

It is the CMA’s first Scotland-specific project since the expansion of its Edinburgh office last year to help the organisation better identify and resolve issues that harm Scottish consumers.

The CMA has today also published a document setting out its views on the Roberton Review’s recommendations. The CMA welcomes the review, which has sparked a debate about how to ensure the regulation of Scottish legal service providers delivers value for money and choice for consumers, as well as benefitting businesses and the economy.

The CMA intends to publish its findings in early 2020. More information can be found through the CMA here.

Notes to editors

  1. The Independent Review of the Regulation of Legal Services, led by Esther Roberton, was invited by the Scottish Government to review the regulation of legal services in Scotland. It reported in October 2018
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SRA launches legal access challenge

Legal Access Challenge launched to encourage innovation

  • Six in 10 don’t think the legal system in England and Wales is set up for ordinary people
  • Many who experience a legal problem don’t take professional advice, citing cost and trust as key barriers
  • Eight in 10 say it needs to be easier for people to access legal guidance and advice
  • We are partnering with Nesta Challenges to launch a prize to make legal support more accessible and affordable through new technology

New research from Nesta Challenges reveals six in ten (58%) people in England and Wales think the legal system is not set up for ordinary people, with the vast majority wanting it to be easier for people to access legal support.

The research was conducted to mark the launch of the Legal Access Challenge – a new prize we are running in partnership with Nesta Challenges – which aims to help more people access legal services through new technology.

The survey also found one in seven (15%) people in England and Wales have experienced a legal issue in the last 10 years; although with only half (51%) of all respondents confident they can identify whether a problem is a legal matter, this is likely to be far higher. We know from existing data that very few people seek professional advice from a solicitor or barrister when they have a problem1, and the research showed people are instead turning to friends and family (20%) or Google (16%) for legal advice.

When asked about barriers to accessing legal advice, seven in ten (68%) say the high cost, followed by the uncertainty of the cost (56%) and knowing who to trust (37%). The vast majority (79%) believe it needs to be easier for people to access legal guidance and advice for themselves.

There is a widespread belief that technology could be the solution to this, with six in 10 (59%) saying they think technology could lead to better services to help people resolve their legal problems. People believe that the biggest benefits to using a digital service for legal advice would be having a fixed price upfront for legal fees (38%), being able to understand their rights (26%) and having access to cheaper legal advice and information (23%).

Part of our wider programme to drive innovation in the sector, the Legal Access Challenge will offer £250,000 in grants to help innovators develop new technology solutions to help make legal advice more affordable and accessible for the majority.

Chris Gorst, Head of Better Markets, Nesta Challenges, said: “For too many people, legal support and advice seems out of reach and reserved for those with the time and money to navigate a complex legal system.

“Technology is not a panacea, but in many areas of our lives it has transformed the choice, convenience and quality available to us and this could be true in legal services too. The UK is a world leader in both technology and legal services, and there is a huge economic and social opportunity in bringing these together.

“We are launching the Legal Access Challenge to help demonstrate what technology can do and to bring these new solutions to market. We want to see digital solutions that directly support individuals and small businesses to access legal services conveniently and affordably, and which can help close the ‘legal gap’ we currently face.”

Nesta Challenges is part of Nesta, the innovation charity, and offers financial prizes to stimulate innovative solutions to some of the biggest challenges society faces. The team works with regulators, policymakers and others to help make markets more competitive and open, advising on how regulatory reforms and targeted public investment programmes can work together to achieve greater impact.

Anna Bradley, Chair of the SRA Board, said: “Whether they are dealing with a personal legal matter , or running a business, people need to be able to get legal support when it really matters.

“Having access to professional advice is important at those life changing moments. And for small businesses, it can make the difference between success and failure.

“There are real barriers for people looking for help and the innovative use of technology is one way of tackling those barriers.

“We want our regulation to support new ideas. The Legal Access Challenge can help to drive the development of new approaches which will deliver tangible benefits to the public, opening up access to legal services for as many people as possible.”

The Legal Access Challenge is open to entrants until 11 August 2019. More information can be found at www.legalaccesschallenge.org

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Solicitors Regulation Authority publishes Residential Conveyancing thematic review

A review about the service provided by solicitors to the public

Executive summary

Buying and selling a property is often the most expensive and important financial commitment a person makes in their life. Having access to reliable and good quality legal support really matters. It not only reduces stress and uncertainty, but potentially directly impacts on whether a purchase is completed, and what the long-term financial implications may be for all involved.

While most property transactions are completed relatively seamlessly, figures from the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) show that residential conveyancing accounted for nearly a quarter of all complaints it handled over the past three years.

Our own research of consumers, conducted in 2018, also identified that up to a quarter of recent home buyers were dissatisfied with some element of the service they received from their solicitor. One common area of concern was an apparent failure to fully explain the detail and implications of contractual commitments.

What we did

We carried out this thematic review to better understand how firms are delivering residential conveyancing services, and whether they are fulfilling their obligations to their clients.

We visited a sample of 40 law firms offering residential conveyancing services and conducted a detailed review of 80 case files.

What we found

We found that most firms were fulfilling their obligations. In particular, we found that:

  • all firms proactively communicated with clients at all key stages of a purchase, with the majority meeting them face-to-face at least once
  • all firms provided clients with clear information on their complaints procedures
  • firms are increasingly embracing technology, especially regarding how they communicate with clients.

However, we did identify areas for improvement. The two most significant and widespread were:

  • inaccurate initial cost estimates – 34% of firms failed to include all the services/fees a matter could reasonably expect to attract in their initial quotes
  • not being open about the real cost of third-party disbursement and their firm’s mark-up on these – specifically telegraphic transfers. In 37% of cases firms failed to do this, with some charging up to 10 times the actual bank charge for processing the transfer.

Other areas where we identified potential concerns included:

  • not processing paperwork efficiently – especially in relation to requisitions raised by HM Land Registry
  • not explaining the difference between freehold and leasehold ownership
  • failing to double-check that a client understands the long-term implications of contractual obligations and fees.

Conclusions

This review clearly found that in the majority of cases, conveyancing firms actively engage with their clients and fulfil their obligations to them. Property deals progress in a timely and efficient manner and clients feel informed and supported throughout.

But sadly, this is not always the case.

Whether its providing unrealistic or incomplete quotes, or failing to make sure contractual information has been fully understood, solicitors are potentially leaving their clients exposed to significant risk or potential financial hardship.

Next steps

This thematic review took place during 2018. In December the same year, we introduced new transparency rules which require firms offering conveyancing services to publish detailed price and services information, and their complaints procedures online.

The requirement to provide clear pricing information was not new. However, these rules, and associated guidance, now provide the profession with absolute clarity on our expectations for how they should be publishing price information.

These requirements include:

  • outlining all known and potential costs a transaction may attract from the outset
  • specifying all charges being added to the actual cost of any third-party disbursements.

As part of our ongoing work, we will continue to review compliance with these rules and will consider further action where necessary to make sure they are being followed.

On the specific subject of making sure solicitors explain contractual details to clients, especially in relation to leaseholds, we urge all firms to make sure that their clients understand their obligations. If we find evidence that people were not made aware of onerous clauses in their leasehold contracts, such as the regular doubling of ground rents, we will take robust action.

Following this review, we referred six firms onto our internal disciplinary processes. Five of these referrals included concerns about failing to declare that the stated telegraphic transfers fees included an additional charge/mark-up.

Read the full report here

Colorado Lawyer Self-Assessment Program yields analytical insights

Colorado Supreme Court Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel started developing its lawyer self-assessment program more than two years ago, immediately after a seminal workshop on proactive, risk-based regulation at the 41st ABA National Conference of Professional Responsibility in May 2015. The new resource is a leading facet of a larger shift toward proactive management-based regulation, which aims to help lawyers practice ethically and soundly in the first place, rather than just reactively imposing discipline after lawyers make mistakes.

The new system provides the regulatory team with real time stats on lawyer engagement and self-assessed professional performance. It highlights the professional objectives scoring the highest and lowest across all respondents, providing the team with evidence to support further educational program development. The platform also has the ability to create customized lists of continuing legal education (CLE) resources based on each respondent’s own personal benchmarks and areas of need. These lists make yearly CLE planning fast and easy for lawyers, and keeps them focused on the most effective resources for their needs.

Jon White, staff attorney at the regulator, writes “The practice of law will always be challenging. The “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” approach of the proactive practice program seeks to reduce some of that stress. The self-assessments give lawyers the blueprint to build an ethical infrastructure. Lawyers, in turn, benefit from enhanced peace of mind. Clients benefit from exceptional service. It is a win-win for all.” The insights generated by the program’s data is informing the regulator where practitioners need more assistance, and where there may be weaker points in the sector as a whole. Staying ahead of this issues protects the public and strengthens the jurisdiction as a whole.

Read more about Colorado’s Lawyer Self-Assessment Program Here

 

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Transparency lies at the heart of Consumer Satisfaction

In January, the Legal Services Board (LSB) of England & Wales released its “Regulatory Performance: Transitional Assessment Review” looking at the transitional assessment of each legal services regulatory body against the LSB’s regulatory performance standards. The report found that it had “sufficient assurance that the regulatory bodies have met the minimum required level of performance against the majority of expected outcomes”.

Transparency across the legal services market lies at the heart of consumer satisfaction. Recent Competition and Market Authority statistics found that before choosing their legal service provider 85% of consumers want better access to information, 53% want information about price, and 37% of consumers what to know about the quality of the service they would receive. In response, the Solicitors Regulation Authority released new price transparency rules, which requires regulated firms to publish price and service information on their websites.

Since 6 December 2018, all solicitors firms had to publish cost information in relation to conveyancing, probate, debt, employment and immigration. The new rules dictate that firms must provide a total cost or an average or range of costs, as well as explain the basis of these charges, including any hourly rate or fixed fees. Firms also must be clear on whether VAT is included, while also highlighting likely disbursements, and their costs. Any conditional or damages-based fees must be fully explained to clients who may have to make payments.

In addition to price transparency, firms are also required to ensure consumers under stand the services they require and are receiving. The rules demand firms

  • Explain what services are included for the quoted price
  • Highlight any services not included within the price, which a client may reasonably expect to be
  • Include information on key stages and typical timescales of these, and
  • Publish the qualifications and experience of anyone carrying out the work and of their supervisors.

SRA’s ‘Looking to the Future’ programme is based on a sound argument that law firms must become more transparent if they are to survive. Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive, said: “Publishing information on price, services and protections will not only benefit the public, but will also help law firms win new business. Research shows that people struggle to find clear information about the services firms offer and think using a solicitor is more expensive than it actually is. We are providing guidance and support for firms to help them meet the new requirements and make the most of the opportunities they bring.”

The SRA has taken consumer protection and transparency a step further, introducing a new Digital Badge. Provided via software which will make sure only regulated firms can display it, the badge will show online visitors which firms are regulated and provide them with a link to information on the protections this provides. Displaying the badge will help firms differentiate themselves from unregulated providers. Use of the badge is initially voluntary but will become a mandatory requirement during 2019.

Challenges of Transparency

Due to the business structures of many law firms, publishing fees is no straightforward matter, leading to some to use a confusing blend of charts, costs schedules, calculators and costs estimates. It is the unknown factors of pursuing legal cases which can alter costs. Russell Conway, senior partner at Oliver Fisher, notes, “It’s the wiggle room issue which is going to be the bellwether as to how successful this project is”.

Price transparency undoubtedly remains vital to consumer protection and satisfaction. However, there are concerns that some consumers may be heavily influenced by price, rather than by skill and expertise. David Kirwan questions if, in a new transparent pricing environment, consumers will truly stop and weigh skills and expertise, rather than revert to low costs. These concerns are not isolated to the UK market, as globally practitioners have expressed concerns about an eventual ‘race to the bottom’. Kirwan notes that “How we as an industry respond, and the way in which we convince consumers that it’s worth potentially paying more to receive a high-quality service, will be crucial if we are to retain the high standards for which this country’s legal sector has become known”.

Complaints Transparency

In considering the question of quality of legal services, greater transparency and public access to disciplinary records is also needed. One of the key findings of the LSB report highlighted that regulators must continue to maintain records of disciplinary sanctions in their official registers. The SRA has issued guidance to help firms clearly understand their obligations under Rule 2.1 of the SRA Transparency Rules to publish complaints. This guidance includes information on complaints handling procedure details, how and when a complaint can be made to the Legal Ombudsman, and details about how and when a complaint can be made to the SRA. Sarah Chambers, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) stated that “Making enforcement data available to consumers is an area that will particularly benefit from consistency in approach”.

Ultimately, providing the public with as much clarity and information as possible when it comes to the legal services they require can benefit not only the consumer, but promote and ensure quality and competence of the industry as a whole. The new transparency rules promulgated by the SRA in December 2018 will improve public access to legal services, ensuring such information on legal service providers is readily available to consumers.


Interested in transparency and enforcement? Contact us and share what is happening in your jurisdiction. There are also opportunities to get involved with the topic at the annual conference. Contact Jim McKay (jamesmckay@lawscot.org.uk) to become involved as a speaker or session moderator.

Platform Economy in Legal Profession: An Empirical Study on Online Legal Service Providers in China

Platform economy breaks into the legal profession by pooling lawyers with different specializations into a simple user-friendly platform, consolidating the lower-tier supply side of the legal market and generating economy of scale. This paper is the very first empirical piece looking into China’s online legal service portals. It is found that, the intermediary functions of the portals as the “matchmaker” between the supply and the demand side are often commingled with certain substantive legal services, which cannot be easily unbundled from each other. Given the grand information asymmetry in legal service provision and the potential importance the users may attach to the portals’ recommendation, the quality of such intermediation and matchmaking still leaves to be desired. This being said, because the portals help to improve the access to justice in China by virtue of offering an EXTRA channel for acquiring and comparing potentially useful information, which is made available at a much lower cost than visiting a physical law firm, the regulator should strive to improve the quality, rather than block up the source of the information. To that end, this paper proposes, based on the inspiration of the ABS regime, an alternative license for these online legal service providers, which imposes minimum regulatory and leaves room for new innovative business structures to evolve.

Full Paper Available Here

Jing Li, Tilburg University – Department of Business Law

Bar Standards Board shares good practice for barristers and advice for clients on consumer feedback

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has today published new guidance that aims to encourage barristers to follow good practice when they receive feedback from their clients. It has also published a guide for the public about using and leaving feedback about barristers’ services.

Along with the other legal regulators, the BSB was asked by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to produce this guidance as one of the recommendations in its 2016 study into the legal services’ market.

The guidance for barristers, which was developed with input from barristers, practice managers and clerks, aims to share:

  • examples of good practice and practical advice to improve the systems that barristers and chambers already have in place;
  • some of the barriers barristers face when collecting feedback and how they can be overcome;
  • the sort of questions to ask when seeking feedback; and
  • how barristers and chambers can use the information they receive.

The guide for the public is for people who are:

  • looking for feedback to help them choose a barrister;
  • looking to instruct a barrister based on feedback they have received from someone or have seen somewhere else; or
  • wanting to give feedback on the service they have received from a barrister to help them improve their practice or to help others choose a barrister.

Read the full Guidance Report here

Bar Standards Board explains how it assures competence at the Bar

Following its decision last year not to implement the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA), the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has today published more detail about how it assures the competence of barristers.

The approach reflects the BSB’s move in the last few years to become a more risk- and evidence-based regulator that takes better targeted action to maintain standards of practice at the Bar. This means that more focused regulation can be introduced where concerns about professional competence have been identified – for example, the recently introduced competence and registration requirements in relation to Youth Court advocacy.

As well as specific targeted regulation, the BSB’s approach to assuring standards includes a range of additional measures that have already been implemented. These include:

  • the regulator’s Future Bar Training reforms that include a clearly defined set of knowledge, skills and attributes expected of all newly qualified barristers on their first day of practice, as specified in the Professional Statement for Barristers;
  • the introduction in 2017 of the new Continuing Professional Development (CPD) scheme for experienced barristers which, aligned with robust monitoring by the regulator, places greater responsibility on individual barristers to reflect upon their learning and development, set learning objectives and review them annually; and
  • existing regulatory controls stemming from a requirement in the BSB Handbook that barristers should not undertake work unless competent to do so.

The paper published today also explains how the BSB uses external indicators of the profession’s competence to inform its regulatory approach. These include existing measures of barristers’ competence such as the processes for reviewing the quality of barristers to join specialist panels like the Treasury Panel or for appointment as a QC.

Read more on this from the BSB

Encouraging the Development of ‘Low Bono’ Law Practices

For decades, the discussion about access to justice has primarily focused on the ability of low–income individuals to obtain free representation by lawyers. Lawyer representation is the “gold star” of the legal profession and advocates of legal services for the poor have fought difficult battles to ensure the most disadvantaged in our country have access to these professionals. As a result, legal aid programs and pro bono services that assist the most economically disadvantaged in our country are now common in our legal service delivery system.

Despite those important efforts, only 50% of those eligible for free legal services actually receive them. Traditional access to justice platforms, while critical for offering legal assistance to a segment of the poor, have not been funded at levels that allow them to serve all those who need and qualify for their services. In lieu of lawyers, members of the legal profession have created self–help tools and substitutes for attorneys in the form of general advice hotlines, online document automation programs, and self–help law centers. If the profession correlates justice with lawyer representation, then the majority of average income Americans and a significant segment of the poor, are without it. In 2011 the United States ranked 50th out of 66 developed nations in providing accessibility to its civil justice system to its citizens.

In order to address the unmet legal needs of individuals in our country, the legal profession must advance an affordable legal services agenda that includes lawyers who provide competent legal services at reduced or “low bono” rates. Increased funding to help the poor and efforts to provide greater accessibility through the use of technology are efforts that can help bridge our justice gap. However, such efforts are limited in their scope. To make additional gains into providing more access to law, we need to devote attention to a segment of our society that currently receives no support and can potentially also benefit the near poor who go in and out of poverty. According to the research of an expert on U.S. poverty, “nearly 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will experience at least one year below the official poverty line during that period and 54 percent will spend a year in poverty or near poverty (below 150 percent of the poverty line).” These figures reveal that a larger segment of the population requires a legal system that understands the fluidity of poverty and their financial instability. A lower–cost legal service delivery system must exist for those priced out of free services who need lawyers to get them back into a more stable financial reality.

Law practices that offer services at low bono rates offer a lawyer alternative to the more than 81.4 million households that earned less than the median income of $51,017 in 2012. Many of these individuals make less than $25 per hour but make too much to qualify for free legal services. Like the poor, Americans of average means need lawyers to advise them about legal issues that arise in their everyday lives but many of them cannot afford lawyers who charge hourly rates that exceed $300 per hour. This chapter explores the need to build the framework that encourages the development of low bono law practices.

Part I helps us understand low bono and why it is a necessary component of a broader legal service delivery system. Part II discusses the challenges that lawyers face in building and maintaining low bono practices. It addresses the financial challenges of running low bono practices and identifies the necessary components for developing viable low bono business plans. Part III outlines the framework the legal profession can and should build to support low bono law practices. It addresses the assumption that an affordable legal fee necessitates a lower quality service. It calls law schools, bar associations and courts to devote resources to build the necessary infrastructure for the delivery of legal services to average means Americans. The chapter concludes with a brief reflection of why lawyers may choose to build a career as a low bono lawyer.

Download full paper

Citation: Herrera, Luz E., Encouraging the Development of ‘Low Bono’ Law Practices (May 2014). University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender & Class, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 1-49, 2014.