Time to hang up the phone? Not exactly—but lawyer referral services embrace new technology

Volume 40 Number 6

By

Go shopping online for legal services in Los Angeles County, Calif., and you'll get an offer of $800 to handle an uncontested divorce, $800 for LLC business formation and $500 for trademark registration.

Avvo? LegalZoom? Rocket Lawyer?

How about SmartLaw from the Los Angeles County Bar Association, the nation's oldest and largest lawyer referral service?

"Five years ago, this would have been a terrible idea. We couldn't have done this," says the bar's LRS director, Seth Chavez. "But it's pretty clear that in the legal marketplace, this is where things are right now. If we don't offer these services, people are just going to go somewhere else."

And that is precisely the concern for many bar associations that have a lawyer referral service or lawyer referral and information service. (Note: For the sake of simplicity, we will use lawyer referral service and LRS as the general terms in this article.)

Technology-driven changes in the way the public seeks and pays for legal services over the last few years have prompted many bar-run LRS programs to reevaluate and revamp their business models. With the number of for-profit online providers growing and calls to traditional LRS phone lines stagnating or dropping in many places, several programs have turned to increased online options, more visible marketing, and strategic partnerships to bolster their referral services.

While many LRS providers are optimistic that they can adapt to the shifting environment, they know that competition will be stiff, consumers will be fickle and funds will be tight. But many say they are buoyed by their long-standing reputations in their communities and the ability to provide a personal, consumer-first approach that they believe straight online players just can't provide.

Adapting to the times

When the LACBA began seriously exploring a flat-fee legal services referral option on its website, it was nothing short of a seismic shakeup at a bar that launched the first LRS in 1937, according to Chavez. "There was some negative feedback at first," he recalls. "They just didn't like the idea of a lower, flat-fee rate."

But for Chavez and others, it was clear that consumers were already well-accustomed—and comfortable—with that model, popularized by the likes of Avvo, LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer.

"Utilizing technology is key," says C. Elisia Frasier, chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Lawyer Referral and Information Service. "How do people access information? It's an issue that faces lawyer referral services and their relevancy, and how to reach people."

To Chavez, it was a question of rearranging some of the flat-fee services that LRS members were already providing, and adapting them to the 21st century. "It was time for us to capitalize on how consumers react," he says.

It was also apparent that LegalZoom (3.6 million customers in 2015), Rocket Lawyer (backed by Google Ventures) and other new players such as UpCounsel (dubbed the "Uber of the legal industry" by Forbes magazine), were prepared to expand their presence in the marketplace.

"We would be foolish to not pay attention to what's happening in the marketplace," says Jill Snitcher McQuain, executive director of the Columbus Bar Association. "We have to continue to adapt to the times."

For Columbus, that has meant a greater emphasis on its online component, ColumbusFindALawyer.org, which focuses on attorney profiles and direct contacts between lawyers and potential clients. In just the last decade alone, McQuain says, the bar's traditional phone-based LRS, which matches callers with a list of participating lawyers, has cut its number of full-time operators from three to 1 ½, as call volume and the number of calls that lead to viable, fee-producing cases have dropped. 

Since many LRS and Find a Lawyer functions overlap, McQuain notes, the services have been co-marketed since 2010—which is just fine for most lawyer participants, she says: "[Find a Lawyer] is advertising that they may not be able to do alone."

At the Bar Association of San Francisco, close proximity to Silicon Valley means the bar is often well equipped to utilize technological advances for its online LRIS component, says Carole Conn, the bar's LRIS director. To that end, a Google AdWords campaign designed to bring more traffic to the LRIS website via online searches has been implemented, along with a live web chat feature that connects consumers with LRIS operators.

"The challenge for us is to evolve technologically," Conn says. "We look very closely at what's happening in the market all the time. In the end, it's about rapid response."

Increasing online technological firepower has also been a focus for the Philadelphia Bar Association's LRIS, says Charlie Klitsch, the bar's director of public and legal services. In addition to a new LRIS/bar Facebook page, a Google AdWords campaign launched a year ago has led to more than 1 million impressions (the number of times a website has been viewed) for the bar's online LRIS presence, helping drive an 18 percent increase in LRIS calls.

"Analytics tell us that [consumers] find our phone number online and then they call us," Klitsch says. "With Google, people are seeing us over and over again. We're happy with it."

Several bars look at big changes

John Stewart, a member of The Florida Bar's Board of Governors and chair of the bar's Vision 2016 Technology Committee, freely admits that his bar's online LRS presence is "fairly anemic," and that technological upgrades focused on the Internet component of referral services are high on the priority list. But that's only part of the picture, as the bar is looking at sweeping LRS changes, including a request for proposals seeking potential private players to update and coordinate the program with other referral services in the state—including partnerships with some of the state's largest metro bar services, in Miami-Dade and Orlando.

"It's an exciting time, but it's a scary time. Everything is on the table," Stewart says. "The statewide LRS would really be a force. We'd be very competitive." A retooled, coordinated statewide LRS could be in place by mid-2017, he adds.

Increased marketing efforts—both Google-inspired and more traditional advertising and word of mouth—have also been part of the improvement push for many referral services. In Philadelphia, the bar has commissioned an outsourced marketing plan while also increasing its community presence, Klitsch says. Meanwhile, the North Carolina Bar Association has recently hired a new marketing director who is expected to develop an improved marketing plan for the bar's LRS, according to Kim Bart Mullikin, director of pro bono and public services activities for the NCBA Foundation.

Another key component of improving the LRS in North Carolina is the implementation of a new fee structure this July which adds a per-panel fee of $50 for each participating lawyer, along with a 10 percent fee on all LRS referrals that generate $500 or more for attorneys. The fee changes, Mullikin says, were driven in part by fears that the LRS—which operates at a loss and is subsidized in part by the NCBA Foundation—might eventually have to shut down.

Similar small fee increases implemented two years ago by the Lancaster (Pa.) Bar Association helped pull their LRS program closer to break-even, according to the bar's executive director, Evelyn Albert.

Faced with similar challenges at the same time, the 600-member Winnebago County Bar Association in Rockford, Ill., made the decision to discontinue its 30-year-old-plus LRS, directing the public to the Illinois State Bar Association for assistance, according to Holly Nash, the Winnebago bar's executive director.

"Our lawyers were not participating, and the calls were dropping," she explains. "[Other smaller bars] might find themselves in the same situation in a few years. Consumers are becoming more particular about [legal services] shopping online."

The importance of service

As many referral services move forward with evaluations and changes to their programs, a common issue is how to position themselves in what many see as an increasingly competitive marketplace. For some LRS providers, perhaps the most distinguishable difference-maker might be the bar itself.

"What bar associations have is the reputation and the standards in the marketplace. We care a lot about consumer protection," Conn says. "We are in the business of public service—which is paramount."

Conn and others say they are more aggressively marketing their services in that vein, showing consumers that their LRS attorneys have been vetted for issues such as experience, topic expertise, malpractice insurance, and cost.

Part of that public mission also means addressing the legal needs of low-income individuals—many of whom don't have email addresses and have limited Internet access, making telephone and face-to-face referral necessary.

"People may start their homework online, but at some point they'll want to talk to a live human being," Snitcher McQuain says.

Whenever the discussion of getting out of the LRS business has come up in Lancaster County, Albert says, it is that notion of service that often ends the discussion, despite the monetary cost to the bar. "It's really not a pleasant service to be providing at times. People call and they are frustrated because they don't understand the legal system," she says. "We do this to help people who are really at a loss."

What else separates LACBA's SmartLaw services from the competition, according to Chavez?

"With us, you actually work with a lawyer. You get to coordinate with a lawyer and still get the flat-fee rate," he says. "The practice of law is kind of personal touch. Clients are always going to need to tell their stories."

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