A problem shared...

When does one person's image problem hurt an entire market?

We’ve seen and heard plenty of stories in the media about celebrities accused of avoiding tax over the last 12 months. Many of these people are closely associated with charities and a range of other good causes. Could their public shaming harm the good name of the causes with which they associate?

We’ve seen this happen to solicitors’ firms now and again. When a serious scandal such as a theft of client money gets media attention, there have been problems for unconnected firms that just happened to have similar names. It’s another form of the 'reputational contagion' we talked about in Catching a Chill back in 2013, but harder to control since the common “brand” is only accidental.

That’s a minor problem if you aren’t the firm affected. But what of the wider impacts? What happens if reputational contagion affects 'Brand Solicitor' and thus the trust the public places in solicitors and the legal services they provide?

The legal market relies, fundamentally, on the ongoing perception by the public that solicitors and other legal professionals can be trusted. The system of undertakings in conveyancing, to name but one, would risk collapse without that trust. In short, faith in solicitors is part of the rule of law.

Reality check: Image against Identity

So how does the public feel about solicitors? People who’ve actually used one tend to have a good impression of their solicitor. Real experience drives out some negative stereotypes, which are certainly there. Only 42 percent of those who responded to the Legal Services Consumer Panel’s 2014 survey said that they trusted solicitors in general to tell the truth, and that’s been a fairly consistent figure across time.

So what could be driving this poor perception, which isn’t shared by those actually using solicitors? Is it more than just the old 'kill all the lawyers' view that’s been around since Shakespeare’s time? We’ve certainly seen actions by a few solicitors that caused major scandals and had the potential to harm the image of the legal profession. The miners’ claims scandal was the most obvious. It began with a simple Government compensation scheme, and then snowballed. The highly-public actions of those involved could not have put solicitors in a worse light if they’d tried. The bad apples were, possibly, too few to really make a difference in the end, however.

Back to the celebrities. The reputational threat we opened with was not about trust in pop stars or TV personalities, but about the trust in charities they publicise. The real damage, in short, isn’t from in the market, but from outside it.

There’s a widespread belief in a 'compensation culture' encouraging people to make inflated or needless claims. There’s no evidence to suggest that such a thing exists, and strong evidence against it – notably, the high proportion of people who say they’ll never claim – but it’s a very entrenched idea. The 'ambulance chaser' view of lawyers goes a long way back. While some solicitors may have contributed, the main drivers for recent concern have quite clearly been cold callers touting for claims and dubious daytime TV advertising. And much of that activity has come, not from solicitors, but from claims management companies, which have only quite recently been subject to any regulation at all.

Public understanding

Do the public know enough to distinguish regulated professionals subject to principles of conduct from unregulated outsiders who aren’t, especially when said same TV adverts sometimes talk about "our solicitors" or boast about being 'lawyers'? Our own research in 2011 suggested that many consumers believed that all legal advisers were regulated. There’s good reason to believe that the public values regulated status and the protections it brings when they are seeking legal advice.

Limited public awareness of the difference between unregulated and regulated providers harms the ability of consumers to make good choices. It also harms the reputation of legal professionals of all stripes.

It makes good business sense for firms to defend their own reputations. The rule of law, however, depends on them also upholding the reputation of regulated legal services.

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