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Vol. 42, No. 3

Where do you find a good lawyer? Lawyer referral trends and how to stay relevant

by Karen Korr

Working in the legal profession, our proximity to an unlimited supply of lawyers means that friends and family will consistently text or email when they are in need of a “good lawyer.” The internet is flooded with “best of” lists, attorney ratings, and law firms that dedicate a significant portion of their budgets to ensuring they come up at the top of any given Google search.

In the days of yore, the Yellow Pages were a bar association-sponsored lawyer referral service’s main advertising mechanism, but the myriad search methods now available to the general public have meant that lawyer referral services have had to quickly adapt. With necessity driving inspiration, innovation, and invention, bar executives coast to coast are revitalizing their programs and redefining how to lead consumers to their services.

During a panel discussion at the 2017 NABE Annual Meeting in New York, the following panelists shared the methodologies their associations employ to stay relevant in their respective markets: SJ Kalian, deputy executive director and chief operating officer, San Diego County Bar Association; Crista Hogan, executive director, Springfield (Mo.) Metropolitan Bar Association; Clifford Flood, general counsel, State Bar of Michigan; and John F. Phelps, chief executive officer, State Bar of Arizona.

San Diego sets the bar ‘higher’

In San Diego, the Lawyer Referral and Information Service aimed to “set the bar higher,” by introducing a new integrated marketing and branding campaign in 2016. Print, internet and radio advertisements use a play on the words “hire” and “higher” with the headline “Do You Need to HIRE a Lawyer? Set the Bar Higher.” Subsequently, “Set the Bar Higher” has been adapted as a San Diego County bar headline, used across all media, including all marketing for the lawyer referral program.

The radio advertising, social media advertising, and targeted outreach have yielded especially significant returns, Kalian said, with the call/contact volume consistently on the rise throughout the year. The LRIS notices spikes in the number of calls that come in when advertising frequency is increased, particularly on social media, she added. 

The San Diego County bar’s new website has an entirely new public portal, intended to be a local online legal information hub, Kalian noted; through the website, the LRIS offers referrals and also provides information on more than 15 areas of law, which coincide with the areas where they make the most referrals.

Another new marketing product that Kalian said was well received is an LRIS comic book called “San Diego’s Attorney Avengers,” which debuted during the county’s largest destination conference event, Comic-Con International. The book has served as a stand-alone marketing piece for the service, a mailer, and an insert in the bar’s print magazine, and it will also be the focus of a new online LRIS advertising campaign as well. 

Springfield puts the emphasis on helping

At the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association, Hogan said, the Lawyer Referral Service has three primary purposes: to generate revenue for the bar, generate business for members, and to serve the public. This is the last remaining lawyer referral service in the state of Missouri, Hogan noted; the bar hopes that the service will eliminate in-person visits, which Hogan said have already been reduced to an average of one per week. Revenue is generated through lawyer participation, but the focus is on providing great customer service and a good experience for callers, said Hogan, adding that interns often help with incoming calls to ensure shorter hold times.

One change that has helped the service succeed is changing its vernacular from “need a lawyer” to “need legal help.” This change was made, Hogan explained, because consumers inferred that “lawyer” meant there was a financial obligation, where “legal help” implied that consumers would receive guidance. 

Michigan takes direct aim at for-profit service

The State Bar of Michigan is looking to compete with the for-profit big dogs by building an online module that will include legal resources available throughout the state and in individual counties and an integrated online directory. The bar’s stated mission with this new module is to create an ethics-focused, bar-based alternative to commercial online sites.

“Unless state bars and regulators aggregate their databases, expertise, and knowledge behind a single lawyer-locator service and collectively manage the evolution of that service consistent with professional ethics,” Flood explained, “the public will come to identify and choose lawyers the same way they locate and choose hotels and restaurants, to the detriment of the public and the profession.”  

This multifaceted model allows for a basic profile for every member of the state bar, and it also gives lawyers the (paid) option of allowing for reviews or no reviews, and ensuring that no competitive ads appear on their profile page. Such premium services are the source of revenue that funds the creation of this module. Self-guided questionnaires and logic trees are built in to help users, and as an added enhancement, a conflict check for attorneys may be added.

The State Bar of Michigan has partnered with a start-up company to create the dynamic interface, Flood said, adding that eventually, the bar seeks to create a nationwide network and a unified branding message.

Arizona backs new public service hub

Likewise, the State Bar of Arizona is tackling referrals with an innovative approach—a soon-to-be-launched “Public Service Center,” which Phelps described as a “scalable hub where the SBA will connect the public with lawyers, provide legal resources and education,” and serve the public “with respect to the provision of legal services and access to justice.” 

Using a model called Legal Services Link, Arizona’s portal is intended to capitalize on the popularity and ease of use of current on-demand apps such as Uber and Postmates. Through this platform, subscribed attorneys can provide significant information about their practice, allowing clients to then find the lawyer who best matches their needs.

One of the goals of the Public Service Center, Phelps said, is to increase access statewide to pro bono and modest mean programs, with pro bono opportunities open to all licensed Arizona attorneys. The center is envisioned to be a “budget-neutral” program, funded by subscriptions from lawyer members, and with any revenue reinvested in additional services. 

The factors that will differentiate the Public Service Center from other commercial vehicles are that it will provide lawyers with a “safe harbor to participate in an ethically blessed forum” and that it will be more responsive to particular needs in the state of Arizona.  

How much does the State Bar of Arizona believe in this new model? Enough to dedicate a full-time staff member to managing it, Phelps said.

Karen Korr

Karen Korr is director of outreach strategy and chief communications officer at the San Diego County Bar Association and editor of the Communicators Talk newsletter for the National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section. Follow her on Twitter: @fullkorrpress.