Online Legal Matching

October 2006
By Ed Collar

The Future of Client Acquisition Is Upon Us

In the relatively newfangled sector of e-commerce, how often does an entrepreneur or attorney who represents e-commerce clients get to witness the birth of a new industry?

Well, there’s a new player in the $173 billion legal services industry, and its initials are OLM — a euphonic moniker for online legal matching.

Actually, online legal matching has been around since 1999, when LegalMatch of San Francisco started matching attorneys to clients based on key factors. But not until recently has automated client acquisition been taken so seriously. Clients immediately embraced this useful electronically enabled innovation but attorneys were reluctant, and were a tad skeptical about replacing their traditional forms of client acquisition with the uncertainties of the Internet. Today, these attorneys have a bit of a different attitude. With the proliferation of the Internet and as Bar associations in state after state issue opinions (overwhelmingly coming to the conclusion that, when done within reasonable guidelines, online legal matching doesn’t violate lawyers’ ethics on garnering clients), lawyers and law firms from Albuquerque to Yonkers, from Portland, ME, to Portland, OR, are meeting with their accountants and running “cost-of-client-acquisition” numbers with a new variable inserted — using intelligent e-commerce as a strategy. And, perhaps more important: Millions of average people looking to hire a lawyer have found this new online avenue, and it’s quickly becoming quite fashionable.

What Is Online Legal Matching, Exactly?

Online legal matching is sometimes best described by what it’s not. It isn’t an old-school referral service, and it’s not a service auction or a mere directory service. There’s no bidding for cases, and there’s no mass advertising of attorney services. Online legal matching uses automated online technologies that match specific needs of a person seeking a lawyer to lawyers whose practices focus on those areas — matching geographically, and based on a lawyer’s various salient attributes and legal skills. For instance, if a client needs a family law attorney in Boise who speaks Spanish and has experience in single-parent adoption, online legal matching can match these specific requirements to attorneys who might possess some or all of these qualities. OLM doesn’t blindly refer clients to the next attorney on a list, but matches the client’s needs to attorneys’ backgrounds.

“The matching is fully automated and based on client-entered criteria, so there is no preferential treatment of particular lawyers,” Anna Ostrovsky, general counsel of San Francisco-based LegalMatch, launched in 2000, says. “This is crucial to the integrity of our business.”

“It is especially important to note that the service is only the facilitator of the match, and after the introduction, the attorney-client relationship is theirs, not ours,” Ostrovsky emphasizes.

In short, the process works like this: Someone looking for a lawyer goes online and basically answers a series of questions that nearly replicates the intake questionnaire that any lawyer in the United States would use. Then, electronic systems put the intake questions into categories, and apply the user’s location to match the “applicant” to the firm’s member attorneys who fit the criteria that the consumer has specified. Attorneys to whom the criteria apply are then notified that they have been matched to a presented case, usually by receiving an anonymous high-level overview of the case. The attorney has the option of responding to that case — or not. Clients review responses and profiles from qualified, pre-screened attorneys and decide which to contact after the initial online effort. The result: Prior to any money changing hands, and with minimal time spent, attorneys are presented with new cases and clients are contacted by attorneys who have already read about their case. Together, the attorney and potential client decide how to proceed.

The e-Commerce Behind It

Because all the nitty-gritty of the transaction takes place online, the real power of OLM lies in the systems behind the service; automation takes the place of costly initial office visits, or of searches through phone books. Online legal matching takes the information clients provide and matches the clients to attorneys who exhibit these attributes and standards. The clients pay no money on these sites. In LegalMatch’s version, if clients prefer, they can opt for live help (for a fee) to assist them in answering the system questions and especially assist them with describing their case. Automated “help” features, and toll-free numbers, are also available to assist clients in their case-presentation needs. LegalMatch says that about only 10% of clients seek additional help with presenting their cases and that few opt for paid assistance; for the client this is a free service.

Good for Attorneys And Clients?

The true power of online legal matching is that it serves two masters: One the client, the other the attorney. OLM services usually use sophisticated search-engine marketing (SEM) to reach new consumers of legal services. Once these consumers are reached, the matching services tout how the OLM removes the guesswork that the Yellow Pages demands, and replaces it with intelligent matching. Once the clients finish the simple intake process, which LegalMatch says takes about 20 minutes, clients can sit back and let the interested attorneys contact them.

The attorneys work on their own schedules. They review the pre-screened, pre-qualified cases that they receive. Attorneys have power over which cases they want to come through their doors. The matching service is seen as a win-win situation. The online legal matching industry is estimated to be a multi-million dollar industry, but it has the potential to be a multi-billion dollar industry.

What Are the Risks?

Some observers point out the inherent risks of such automation. One such risk is the basic business model behind online legal matching. While it costs attorneys to participate in the service, unlike traditional forms of advertising, attorneys can track results and see their advertising dollars at work. In most cases, the cost of membership fees depends on participating attorneys’ areas of practice and geographic location. It’s no surprise that attorneys in New York City pay more than those participating in Peoria — they charge more.

Another perceived risk is that these online enquiries and matching services violate the high ethical standards that the legal profession maintains for client solicitation and advertising. To address this risk, LegalMatch has asked state Bar associations to consider these concerns, and the questions that lawyers and legal-services consumers might raise. Most Bars are issuing opinions that, when certain specific guidelines are followed, online legal matching services pose no risk to ethical standards. These guidelines the Bars speak of usually have to do with services not recommending particular attorneys over others, or not applying discretion to route consumer requests.

Another universal opinion is that the services cannot steer cases to a particular attorney. When considering one of the services, all attorneys should be confident that the company they contemplate signing up with uses automated matching and does not offer exclusivity to any member.

Bar Rulings and Opinions

Many key states have addressed this issue of ethics directly, an action precipitated by the industry and, specifically, by LegalMatch, which also was instrumental in spearheading the recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) finding on online legal matching. As reported in the September edition of e-Commerce Law & Strategy, the FTC determined that OLM can, overall, save consumers money, and violates no ethics boundaries.

For instance, the South Carolina Bar advised, in Opinion #01-03, that a lawyer could ethically participate in an Internet service that matched attorneys and clients when the service provider plays no role in how the recipient decides on which attorney to use, based on the information provided.

The Professional Ethics Committee of the State Bar of Texas recently issued a new opinion in support of allowing Texas lawyers to participate in for-profit Internet sites that help match attorneys with people seeking legal representation.

In February of 2005, the Rhode Island Supreme Court Ethics Advisory Panel ruled, in Opinion 2005-01, that the LegalMatch consumer-lawyer matching model was an acceptable method for attorneys to use to find prospective clients.

The North Carolina Bar Association in April 2004 issued formal ethics Opinion 2004-12. The opinion began by describing LegalMatch as “similar to both a lawyer referral service and a legal directory.” The opinion holds that LegalMatch “is not strictly a referral service” and that the failure of LegalMatch to meet the conditions placed on lawyer referral services in general “should not prohibit a lawyer from participating.”

And most notably, in 2004, the Utah State Bar signed an agreement to replace its traditional lawyer-referral process with the LegalMatch online matching service for Utah citizens, a first-of-its-kind partnership in the legal industry. This agreement marks a key milestone in the growth of OLM services.

Who Is Best Suited For OLM Services?

Getting new clients in through the office doors has always been a challenge for the new solo attorney or new small law firm, and it’s a sizable challenge: About 500,000 small firm and solo attorneys are practicing in the United States. OLM seems best suited for these types of firms because it focuses on matching each client’s needs to attorneys’ skills.

Whether an attorney wants more clients, or wants to focus his or her practice by attracting clients of a particular type, or just wants to spend more time “lawyering” and less time marketing, online legal matching can help.

On the client side, people who may have never hired a lawyer, or never had reason to, will find these automated services very helpful and empowering. We all know that hiring a lawyer can be an intimidating process. When legal counsel is sought, something stressful is usually occurring in one’s life. Instead of feeling like taking a stab in the dark by choosing an attorney from the Yellow Pages or responding to a traditional ad, prospective legal-services customers can conduct a quick and thorough search for legal counsel, with little risk and lower stress, through an OLM site.

The FTC believes that online legal matching will ultimately usher in lower prices for clients, and that they will be able to obtain better legal services by being able to locate an attorney who best meets their needs.

What Does Tomorrow Hold?

Like the rest of e-commerce, the online legal matching industry is growing as more consumers go online and trust Internet-based transactions. This trend alone is changing how attorneys locate qualified clients. OLM is an industry born from the growth of the legal-services sector, along with the proliferation of Internet access. Today, more than 4 million people are conducting legal-services searches online each month, and the number is expected to reach more than 7 million legal-services searches per month by consumers by next year, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Individual attorneys and large law firms shouldn’t miss out on these potential clients.

The early success of the OLM industry is evidence that the entire legal industry will most likely follow the financial-services, media and entertainment, telecommunications and travel industries — each of which has seen a revolution in how they’re conducted, thanks to the Internet. It’s obvious that consumers have embraced these new ways of conducting business — all of us prefer to make empowered and informed decisions. The search for a well-qualified lawyer — or a good client — should be no different.

Ed Collar is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and consultant to online industries. Reach him by telephone at 415-336-8661 or send him a fax at 415-974-6495.

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