Series: Law: the expert view
all lawyers, good and bad
Rick Kordowski remains unapologetic over the website he set up
after his experience with lawyers
libel gags are new worry for
News about jures.co.uk:
aid cuts: penny-wise and
Robins on the
guardian.co.uk Friday 25 March 2011 13.15 GMT
Leo McKern as John Mortimer's irascible Rumpole of the Bailey. How would he have fared on Rick Kordowski's website? Photograph: The Ronald Grant Archive
"I've no particular problems with the legal industry as a whole. One of my best friends is a solicitor." Such magnanimity might dangerously raise the blood pressure of lawyers when they realise the view expressed is from Rick Kordowski, owner of solicitorsfromhell.com, scourge of all dodgy lawyers and perfectly decent ones that have the misfortune of falling into his notoriously non-discriminating net.
Mr Justice Lloyd Jones last month lambasted the hugely controversial website which seeks to name and shame "corrupt, negligent, dishonest, crooked, fraudulent lawyers" for comments about a young solicitor that were, he said, "baseless, abusive, malicious and an unwarranted slur on the competency and probity of a young lawyer". The lawyer in question was awarded £10,000 in damages. The judge was particularly vexed by the site's £299 "administration charge" that lawyers have pay to get their names taken off the website.
It's not hard to understand why Kordowski has become the law's bête noire. The Law Society's chief executive, Desmond Hudson, says that "fair criticism" is "entirely valid" and that the need for clients to be able to give feedback is "extremely important".
I spoke to Kordowski last week. Was there something uniquely dreadful about lawyers to target them in this way, I asked. "Probably not. The same criticisms could probably be made about accountants, bankers, builders " His motivation for setting up the site, which has been running for five years, was his treatment at the hands of lawyers.
The Essex-based self-employed graphic designer claims to have lost £750,000 after being negligently advised on a planning dispute. He was vague about the details of the case ("it's complicated"). "It devastated me. I lost everything house, job, money, the whole shooting match."
He claims to have received £500 compensation through the Law Society's complaints handling process as a result of professional negligence.
What would he say to the many lawyers appalled, perhaps devastated, by unfounded criticism placed on his site? "Go back to your client, or whoever complained about you, and sort out your differences," he replied.
Why doesn't he vet claims? Kordowski said that he once did try checking with firms before publishing. "Everyone denied the allegations and so I don't do it any more."
He told me that now people have to set up a PayPal account before they list a complaint. "So I have the pukka details. If it reads OK, and they're happy with my terms and conditions, I generally publish."
When I suggested to Kordowski, who has a number of legal actions from aggrieved lawyers against him, that he be must either be "brave or suicidal'' to bait lawyers, he replied: "Not really, I have nothing to lose in terms of cash or assets." And what about that "admin charge"? No one ever pays it, he insists. "It's a publicity stunt. I was on the front page of the Law Society's Gazette a few months ago so it does work!"
The site now has a solicitorsfromheaven service where web users can find "good, decent, fighting, professional, passionate lawyers". There are some 200 firms listed including 10 who, Kordowski tells me, have paid £299 for a lifetime listing ("that includes a ban from hell") supported by client testimonial.
That is why the solicitorfromhell phenomenon Kordowski reckons it gets 2,500 hits a day can't be dismissed, certainly not in the context of the ongoing deregulation of legal services. It meets a demand.
"While he may have run his site a tad carelessly, the fact that he got 5,000 submissions from punters suggests there is something in it," blogged legal academic John Flood.
The Legal Services Act 2007 was not introduced as a result of an evangelical belief in the transformative powers of competition. It was as much to do with the profession's woeful track record on complaints that kick-started the whole Clementi business.
As we head towards 6 October which will (theoretically) unleash those powers of competition under the LSA by allowing non-law businesses (the Co-Op, Halifax, Which? et al) to move further into legal services, the big question is how on earth do consumers choose between the "heaven" and "hell" of legal services?
At the moment they don't, according to a recent report from the Legal Services Board (Quality in Legal Services, Legal Services Consumer Panel), which confirmed that "quality" was "not strongly influencing consumers". That was "bad for competition" as quality firms couldn't differentiate themselves from poorer rivals. "We put ourselves in their hands and, because they are qualified and they are professionals, we just hope and presume that they going to give us the right information and do the job for us," said one interviewee. It's hardly the view of the empowered consumer.
The legal services market is already seeing a wave of comparethemarket.com-style sites anticipating the newly competitive environment. Welcome innovations, I reckon, although they seem price-driven. What the market needs is Tripadvisor-style sites (plus online sources of reliable information signposting them towards trusted sources of help) so that people can make an informed decision. There's not much point in competition if you can't make a choice. Expect more.
A footnote: when I spoke to Kordowski he mentioned that there were lawyers, even judges, who believed his site had "a purpose in society"? Who, I asked. This led me to talk to Mark Manley, a defamation lawyer at the Liverpool Brabners Chaffe Street Solicitors.
It turns out Manley himself (a deputy district judge) was listed on solicitorsfromhell. Not by his own client but by the other side's. Clearly it's not the responsibility of a lawyer to keep the opposition happy (it's arguably the sign of a good one that they don't). Manley contacted Kordowski and threatened to sue unless his details were removed. He got the usual response (an invitation to pay the £299 admin fee). Manley wasn't having it. He insisted he would take action without delay "whatever the financial consequences for you". Kordowski, after asking for confirmation that he didn't act for the complainant, agreed.
Manley was then astonished to get another email from Kordowski asking for his help in his capacity as a defamation lawyer. "You have to admire the opportunism," Manley tells me. The solicitor, despite having to force him to take down the comments, was prepared to offer generic advice to avoid future problems.
Anyhow, what does Manley, a victim of the site, make of it? "It is a shame that some basic safeguards don't operate because the intention a consumer-based website to enable members of the public to make legitimate statements about service is good. Unfortunately, currently there appears no control to prevent somebody making indiscriminate unjustified and/or false allegations against a solicitor whether they had a service from them or not."