Vol. 44, No. 1

New approaches in helping today’s consumers find lawyers

By Marilyn Cavicchia

In a world where online information is plentiful and everyone is on the phone all the time, for everything except talking, is there still a place for bar association lawyer referral services?

Yes, said panelists at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives, but it requires adapting to consumer preferences—especially their desire to do things themselves, and on their own schedule.

On hand to discuss the state of the art in helping consumers find lawyers were: Angie Lloyd, executive director of the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation; Alberto Rodriguez, public relations manager at the State Bar of Arizona; and Ken Matejka, president of Matejka Marketing. The panel was moderated by Jill Snitcher McQuain, executive director of the Columbus Bar Association.

Consumers want to take action

Setting up the new Ohio Legal Help portal was a challenge, Lloyd said, because it involved pulling together information from 88 counties, 688 courts, and thousands of resources. It also involved a great deal of consumer research to figure out exactly what people wanted and needed at the moment when they were ready to look for a lawyer.

“Consumers want information,” Lloyd said, “and they want to take action on that information.” That might sound simple enough, but what Lloyd meant is that they want to take action right away—even if “now” is at midnight on a Sunday.

“You’ve caught someone when they’re at a moment when they’ve decided to do something,” Lloyd said, noting that it’s difficult for many people to reach the point where they want to find a lawyer, and you don’t want to miss that moment by asking them to call during normal business hours.

The Ohio Legal Help portal asks for the person’s county and village, and then asks whether they’re willing to answer more questions—which most people are, Lloyd said. The purpose is to sort out where the person is, the nature of their legal need, and whether they’re eligible for legal aid. If they’re not, then the system still connects them with their local bar’s LRS—but the difference is, more information has already been collected, so the LRS contact can be much more efficient.

As the portal continues to build its credibility with consumers, Lloyd said, more of the inquiries are from people who can afford to pay for legal help and thus get directed to LRS rather than legal aid. Another recent development, she said, is that employment has been added to the areas of law included in the portal.

The portal is also mobile friendly, Lloyd said, noting that it actually looks better on a mobile device than it does online from a desktop.

What if you can’t have an LRS?

The State Bar of Arizona’s mandatory structure means that it can’t give referrals, Rodriguez said—but consumers don’t know that. In fact, he noted, the bar’s website receives 7,000 visits a year from members of the public looking for legal help.

As a way to help guide consumers without crossing a regulatory line, the bar launched its Find a Lawyer portal in May 2018. The portal walks consumers through three easy steps, Rodriguez said. Once one or more lawyers express interest in the case, the consumer then follows up and makes the connection and decision. This means the bar itself isn’t in the position of actually making the match, as in traditional lawyer referral.

Consumers can choose the level of experience they need their lawyer to have, which is commensurate with the amount they’re willing to pay. In the first year, Rodriguez said, 5,890 projects (or cases) were posted by consumers, and out of those, 1,400 requested pro bono services—which has helped dispel an early misconception that no one would use the portal to find lawyers whom they would pay.

Currently, Rodriguez said, 350 members have subscribed, which costs them $300 per year (it’s free for consumers to use). The top five most requested areas of law are family law, labor and employment, real estate, wills and trusts, and personal injury.

The bar had an initial challenge in obtaining buy-in from legal aid organizations, Rodriguez said. However, the state’s legal aid agencies, which are at capacity, now refer people to Find a Lawyer if they are unable to help them.

Member participation has been growing steadily, Rodriguez said, but with 24,000 members, there’s still plenty of room. The bar’s Arizona Attorney magazine has helped promote Find a Lawyer via a feature story and print ads, he said; public relations, social media, and offering free trials at events are other tools that have been used to boost subscriptions.

Current subscribers also help sell the idea to other members, Rodriguez said, noting that one member recently provided a perfect quote when they said more members should use Find a Lawyer because “'potential clients are spoon-fed to us.’”

LRS as a profit center

Matejka, whose company provides marketing for about 30 bars and other legal organizations (several of which use the Community.lawyer platform), firmly believes that LRS is a profit center that provides a way for the bar to support pro bono and other worthy programs. He also thinks that phones are still important, and that most referral services need more staff to answer them.

The new staff person typically pays for themselves by their third year, Matejka has found. This means it can initially be difficult to make the investment, he said, but “I can convince any board of directors to get you another referral counselor.”

Very few directories or other online services have operators standing by to help, Matejka said. Other assets that bars should capitalize on include the credibility of their trusted brand, and the fact that their lawyers are guaranteed to be qualified and insured (if this is, in fact, true).

Even with a robust phone bank, Matejka said, a lawyer referral service must have an online presence—and it must be visible via Google. The dominant search engine calls actions such as looking for lawyers “an intent-rich micromoment,”Matejka said, adding that the consumer will search not for “lawyer referral service” and your bar’s name, but for “[location] lawyer” or [type of legal need] lawyer.” This means it’s critically important that you know where your LRS ranks in search results for certain key terms and that you learn how to move up in those ranks—or have someone help you do that.

A great LRS website provides for the “now” factor that Lloyd mentioned as well, Matejka said. It may also give the consumer a set of three lawyers to compare and choose from, rather than just giving the next name in the rotation, which he said doesn’t meet consumers’ need to be in control. Even if all you’re really doing is popping up three names instead of one, with a bit of information about each, he explained, this allows the consumer to be involved in making the decision.

Another way that Matejka thinks LRS must adapt to changing consumer preferences is that the initial consultation must be free. Martindale recently identified 40 decision criteria in choosing whether to meet with a lawyer, he explained; first was what area of law the lawyer practiced—and second was whether they offered a free consultation.

That’s true regardless of income, Matejka believes; these days, even wealthy people balk at fees, and consider it almost a sport or a badge of honor to get the best deal they can. Charging a fee may have worked back when the only alternative was to look through the Yellow Pages, he said—but not anymore.

“Let those dinosaurs charge $75,” he said, “and die."