Vol. 42, No. 6

The lawyer search tool that never sleeps: Bar associations use technology to meet consumer needs

by Robert J. Derocher

In the eyes of two lawyer-led, technology-driven startups, bar associations have a couple of powerful but underutilized assets that can boost the fortunes of the associations—and their members—with a click, tap, or touch of a screen: credibility and accurate information.

“We’re helping bar associations harness their credibility as a member benefit,” says Bob Aicher, president/CEO and cofounder of CloudLawyers (formerly Zeekbeek), which has partnerships with the ABA and several state bars.

“Bar associations are at the nexus of legal need in a lot of communities,” says Scott Kelly, president of Community.lawyer, which is working with about two dozen state and local bars.

The growth of these startups, along with the emergence and growth of similar Internet-based programs, are good indicators that more bars are embracing evolving technology to develop and hone online lawyer-finder portals—both for individual lawyer promotion and for bar-run LRS/LRIS lawyer referral, according to Aicher, Kelly and others. Although many of these efforts were borne out of industry frustration with for-profit services like Avvo and LegalZoom, more bars are seeing a growing member benefit from developing and expanding portals that are adapting to the changing ways that the public finds and chooses lawyers in today’s legal marketplace.

It should be noted that this is by no means an entirely new concept. Many metropolitan bars and other local bars have had successful lawyer-finder tools for years—perhaps as a natural complement to LRS/LRIS. One such example is the Columbus Bar Association, whose Columbus Find a Lawyer portal debuted in 2007 (under a different name). The CBA licenses its technology for use by other metro bars; currently, the following bar associations operate lawyer-finder portals via this arrangement: the Dayton (Ohio) Bar Association, the Palm Beach County (Fla.) Bar Association, the Macomb County (Mich.) Bar Association, the Cincinnati Bar Association, the Jacksonville (Fla.) Bar Association, and the Allegheny County (Pa.) Bar Association.

Among state bars, two well-known models are Euclid Technology's Licensed Lawyer partnership with the Utah State Bar, and the New York State Bar Association's online LRIS portal, which is powered by Legal.io. In recent years, there seems to be burgeoning interest among state bars (both voluntary and unified), as they seek innovative ways to make accessing legal services less fragmented and more seamless for consumers and lawyers alike.  

‘Credibility is our calling card’

CloudLawyers began about two years ago as a direct result of its founders seeing mistake-filled profiles and dubious ratings of themselves on for-profit lawyer-finder websites, Aicher says. The venture, originally known as Zeekbeek, changed its name and its focus last year. It is now a public benefit corporation that emphasizes partnering with bar associations—in particular, state bars, which, Aicher says, usually have the most accurate and up-to-date information on lawyers, including not only contact information, but also details such as state-provided disciplinary actions. With that information in hand, CloudLawyers has developed online lawyer directories with five state bars: in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Georgia (with South Carolina due to come online in the fall).

Once those bare-bones directories were established, it was then up to the individual state bars to encourage their members to provide additional information to enhance their directory entries, adding details such as photos, practice descriptions and, in some cases, client reviews. Restricting profile information sources to the bars and the lawyers themselves, Aicher notes, helps keep inaccuracy to a minimum.

His sales pitch to associations and lawyers is simple, he says: “We’re here to enable them to do better and to compete with what the for-profit marketplace is already doing. If they don’t get better at what they’re doing, the for-profit marketplace is really going to harm them.”

The cost model for CloudLawyers is still a work in progress, he adds. Currently, participating bars are not charged for linking their directory information to the CloudLawyers database. In Georgia, an “enhanced profile” package that would charge participating lawyers is being developed that could provide a template for future services, Aicher says. Part of that concept, he says, would also involve revenue sharing between CloudLawyers and individual bars.

The results that bars are seeing, combined with the increasing interest from other associations, is evidence that the approach works, he says. When it launched in Michigan in 2016, there were 52,000 searches per month. Today, in Michigan and four other states, there are more than 425,000 monthly searches—or about 5 million per year.

“Our research showed that the most important thing consumers wanted was accurate information, so credibility is our calling card,” Aicher says. “I don’t think bar associations quite understood how powerful their asset is.”

And it has been achieved, he adds, without negatively impacting the separate lawyer referral services that many bars have historically had in place.

“The CloudLawyers resource supplements and improves the service bars offer to the public and their members," says Janet Welch, executive director of the State Bar of Michigan. “We've made a lot of changes to our lawyer referral program in Michigan, with many positive results. We've been willing to flyspeck the way we've always handled lawyer referral and ask ourselves, 'Is there a better way?’ We're convinced there is, and are working hard to prove it.”

While there were some concerns about effects on the lawyer referral service, the bigger concern for the Illinois State Bar Association was that the bar had never had a public-facing directory before affiliating with CloudLawyers last year, according to ISBA Assistant Executive Director for Communications Tim Slating. Working with CloudLawyers, the ISBA created IllinoisLawyerFinder, developing basic directory entries and then giving members the opportunity to opt out.

And while most members did not opt out, Slating says the bar was still bracing for questions and potential negative responses when the portal went live on the ISBA website.

Those reactions never came.

“The members who use it really like it,” Slating says. “They’re getting calls from it, and to their mind, it’s just like LinkedIn. It’s another free avenue for them to advertise their services, and they’re glad we’re providing it.”

The bar has been actively encouraging members to enhance their profiles, he says, and has just recently started to ramp up marketing efforts to the public. And like Michigan, he adds, the bar has seen no negative impacts to existing LRS offerings. Instead, the bar provides “badges” that participating LRS attorneys can use to enhance their directory profiles. Similar “leadership” badges are added to the profiles of bar council and committee leaders.

In addition, Slating says the ISBA is effectively promoting the directory opportunity as a member benefit. “We’re viewing it as a top-tier benefit in attracting and keeping members. The new member directory is definitely one of the top five,” he says. 

An LRS-focused approach

Although there is likely to be functionality in the future for CloudLawyers to assist bar LRS programs, LRS is already the main focus of Community.lawyer. Also a public benefit corporation, it was launched about a year ago out of Blue Ridge Labs, a technology arm of the nonprofit Robin Hood Foundation. The goal is to promote access to quality legal help and help fill access to justice gaps, says Kelly, a former ACLU attorney in Pennsylvania. Among its clients: the State Bar of South Dakota, the West Virginia State Bar, the Boston Bar Association, the Chicago Bar Association, the Santa Clara County (Calif.) Bar Association, the Orange County (Fla.) Bar Association, and the Pima County (Ariz.) Bar Association.

Hundreds of conversations with bar associations, lawyers, and legal service consumers convinced Community.lawyer that enhancing LRS capabilities and availability to the public via bar association web portals would be the best approach.

“What we heard from bars is that the way [consumers] expect to find lawyers is changing, and they want to stay current with those changes,” Kelly says. “Our software allows for other web apps, and the bar can submit referrals through text or chat bots. We want to support all ways that lawyers can communicate.”

Community.lawyer uses a front-facing intake and behind-the-scenes attorney reporting, which includes an “admin dashboard” that can be used to make phone referrals. “A phone call with a person is always a part of it,” Kelly explains. “That won’t be replaced.”

Similar to CloudLawyers, there are no expected fees to bar associations for using Community.lawyer. Kelly sees revenue potential in providing fee-driven online services and technical tools to participating lawyers, which could prove especially attractive to solo and small-firm practitioners.

For bars that don’t have a lawyer referral service in place, Community.lawyer has also developed a public lawyer directory.

Successful models, old and new

While Slating says there is “strength in numbers” when bars unite to provide lawyer directory and referral information, some bars have gone it alone in using technology to bring bar members and the public together.

The Minnesota State Bar Association has had its mnfindalawyer.com online search service for more than a decade. The portal—free to the bar’s 15,000 members on an opt-in basis—has been updated in the last few years so that members can update their postings themselves, add headshots and links to videos, and include practice and fee structure information, according to Joe Kaczrowski, the bar’s online services director. The bar has held headshot and video days to encourage members to post headshots and record videos, which have been shown to boost interest for searchers.

“About a quarter of our website traffic goes to the directory, so it’s very popular,” Kaczrowski notes.

The directory also includes an opt-out service that is closed to the public, allowing members to search and communicate among themselves. About 20 percent of members have opted into the public directory, with higher numbers for the member-to-member directory.

In Arizona, a state supreme court-ordered revamp of the State Bar of Arizona’s mission to focus more on access to justice was one factor that prompted the bar to partner with Legal Services Link to create Find a Lawyer, which launched in May 2018. The portal differs from directories in that it allows members of the public to post potential case needs and a ballpark price point—low, medium or high. It’s then up to Arizona lawyers—who paid the $300 annual subscription fee to join the network (though the lawyer profiles themselves are free)—to respond to the consumer and potentially make a match. It is a variation of the Legal Services Link site founded in 2015 in Chicago.

“We wanted to work out a true safe harbor, not just for consumers, but also for lawyers,” says John Phelps, the bar’s CEO and executive director. “We have tried to avoid the ethical concerns related to online systems. For example, consumers can see lawyer discipline history and lawyer standing. When they come to us, they can be assured that they are connecting with lawyers who are in good standing.”

About 100 lawyers have signed on in the first couple of months of the service, with about 400 cases posted by the public.

A tech-forward future for bar associations?

One benefit from the process that Phelps sees not only for his bar, but for others going forward?  Communication. “[Bars] all talk to each other, often through NABE,” he says, “to see what’s working.”

The continuing realization among them, he says, is that bars needed to react to become more savvy technical players in linking legal services promotion to benefits for bar members.

“Individually, we cannot compete with the for-profit tech sector,” adds Slating. “We have to come together, and we have to take control over this process. Otherwise, we are ceding the battlefield to for-profit lawyer finders.”