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."