Attorney-Client Matching Services: An In-Depth Report
Need-to-Know News - November 9th, 2007
More than four million consumers and small businesses currently search for legal services via the Internet every month, with these numbers expected to rise to over seven million this year, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The legal services market is expected to reach $82.5 billion in 2008 according to Euromonitor International, a market intelligence firm.
This is a huge market that is getting larger. It is imperative that attorneys understand this marketplace because your potential and existing clients are moving to the Internet, and yellow page advertising is a dying marketing vehicle. Understanding attorney-client matching services is one new way to tap into this Internet marketplace.
Don't get confused between attorney-listing services and attorney-client matching services. The two majors in the attorney-listing services arena are Lawyers.com or FindLaw.com. With attorney marketing one might want to get a minimal listing on one or both of these two major sites. Both do drive a large amount of traffic to their sites for sure (in the millions of visitors per year). If you do get a listing, be sure to track your results carefully and see whether the listing actually does produce clients for you. Don't spend more than the basic listing that will run about $150 or so per month, at least until you can document results with the basic listing. One last note here: you probably don't want to test most of the lesser attorney-listing competitors like lawinfo.com, lawcore.com or attorneyfind.com. However if you, do be sure to track your results.
Attorney marketing via five attorney-client matching players
In the attorney-client matching field there are five competitors for the attorney marketing dollar offering online attorney-client matching services. The first and originator is LegalMatch.com, followed by its competitors CasePost.com and LegalFish.com.
Let's begin with LegalMatch, which was established in 1999 and is based in San Francisco. LegalMatch uses a double blind matching system. By double blind they mean the consumer does not see identifying information about the lawyers and the lawyer does not immediately see identifying information about the consumers. All the cards are put on the table eventually for both to see before any contact is made between them. LegalMatch makes the decision about which lawyers get the consumer's information through an allocation model. Consumers can opt into "priority service" for a fee to talk with a LegalMatch staff attorney about their case and work with that attorney in selecting the attorney for their case. LegalMatch does have partnerships with the Utah State Bar Association, ATLA and NACDL.
Membership fees for this marketing vehicle run from $2,500 to $25,000 per year (they will finance the membership fee if desired) depending on practice area and geographic location of the attorney. For example, a PI attorney in Los Angeles would likely be charged more than a family law attorney in Los Angeles, while a family lawyer in Peoria is likely to pay less than the family law attorney in Los Angeles. Their guarantee consists of extending your membership at no fee until your revenues have exceeded the fee you paid them. The details of the guarantee are available at http://www.legalmatch.com/attorneys/atty-guarantee.html.
Are there legal marketing ethics issues with attorney-client matching?
Because this model is not a lawyer referral program, a pre-paid legal service plan, a joint or cooperative advertising or a directory listing service it is not subject to ethics rules as has been asserted. Recently the Professional Ethics Committee of the Texas State Bar was looking into these practices and it received a seven-page letter (May 26, 2006) from the FTC that this attorney marketing practice is indeed ethical. You can read the entire FTC letter at: http://www.ftc.gov/os/2006/05/V060017CommentsonaRequestforAnEthicsOpinionImage.
Already the states of North Carolina and South Carolina have found the practice ethical. The Rhode Island Supreme Court specifically named in an ethics opinion that online matching services are ethical. Finally, the Utah State Bar (a mandatory bar) has retained LegalMatch as their lawyer referral service, clearly indicating their thinking about LegalMatch's ethical nature. Naturally you do need to check with your state bar to be sure this is an ethical practice in your state.
CasePost.com, based in Southern California, was established in 2002 and is a second player in this area of marketing for law firms. They operate in a similar fashion as LegalMatch in matching clients with lawyers; however, the directory of attorneys is shown to the consumer immediately. The consumer can decide whether they want to remain anonymous or give their contact information to the attorneys. The consumer is limited to four attorney responses. Thus the consumer determines which attorneys will get their information. In May 2006 CasePost made a major expansion as a result of their partnership with HandelOnTheLaw.com. They also have a strategic relationship with LegalZoom.com that began in 2006 and has increased their reach. Like LegalMatch, the membership fees for this attorney marketing vehicle are from $2,500 to $25,000 per year (financing is available if desired) depending on practice area and location. Their guarantee to a member is based on a minimum number of referrals over the year.
LegalFish is a third player in this arena. It entered the marketplace in 2003 and is based in Chicago. It is a bit different than the other two in a few ways. As with the other players, the consumer can input their information and post their cases to the site, as well give their identifying information or not. In a number of cases LegalFish will contact the posting consumer themselves by telephone or email to delve deeper into the needs of the consumer, so there is human involvement. There is an allocation model used by LegalFish in referring the cases to their members.
Another difference is that LegalFish charges a monthly fee for this marketing vehicle ranging from $180 to $750 to members that have non-contingency based practices. For contingency based practices the fee ranges from $1600 to $5000+ monthly only if the client retains the attorney. If LegalFish does not refer a client who retains that attorney, they don't charge a fee to that attorney for the month. It's a form of a guarantee, creating something of a "shared risk" system. Naturally, with this type of shared risk system, long-term success for both parties is based on LegalFish's ability to generate new client opportunities and create demand for legal services, and their member attorneys' ability to convert those referrals into paying clients. Both parties have to "pull their weight." Finally, LegalFish reports they are particularly committed to serving the solo and small firm market with ten employees or less.
The next player in this marketing for law firm arena is Lawyers.com, with their new Attorney Match Service. If you go to their homepage, what stands out is their "Find A Lawyer" link. This is their free to the consumer attorney-listing service (this is why you might want to test a listing with them and track results). To get to the Attorney Match Service a client has to know to click on the "Contact Lawyers" navigation tab or notice it up at the very top of the Lawyers.com home page. Clicking on that takes clients to a page where they input their zip code and the practice area they are seeking. Thereafter, it also tells you how many lawyers there are listed, so the client can choose whom to contact. Next, the client is required to fill in their identifying information along with other case information. Once they do that they see the attorneys listed and pick the ones they want to send their request to and wait for their replies.
The fee for the attorney member is $495 per year; however, you must have a biographical level listing on lawyers.com to be on the Attorney Match Service, which costs $150 and up per month depending on the size of your firm. There is no guarantee for this service.
The final player in this marketing arena is Thompson's Findlaw.com with their new attorney-matching website www.LegalConnection.com. The FindLaw system is similar to the Lawyers.com system with three steps of #1 Select your legal need, #2 Tell us about your case, and #3 Choose the attorney that's right for you. It is different from Lawyers.com's system because they have broken it out of their attorney-listing services completely with its own dedicated website.
Their fees generally run from $500 to $1000 per month depending on your practice area and geographic location. They do not have a guarantee. They do report that they do set targets for each geographic area as well as practice combination, and then will manage their marketing to get positive results for attorneys.
Both Legal Match and CasePost have negative information on the Internet which needs to be considered. If you go to Google and search the term LegalMatch and then do the same with CasePost you will be able to find details about the negative information. One location that covers the negative information on LegalMatch with relevant links is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LegalMatch although the neutrality of this article is disputed. I am not sure one needs to be overly concerned about this information because it is mostly in the past but you need to consider it.
Conclusions and recommendations on attorney-client matching
Let me list my current thoughts in this niche of attorney-client matching services and from there it is up to you to make your decision:
1. This marketing vehicle clearly has some merit. This approach can deliver business to you that you would not get otherwise and get it to you now. Yes, you can do better and at least arguably cheaper for yourself through the right Internet attorney marketing strategies. However, it is not going to happen tomorrow and attorney-client matching can happen tomorrow. You can build your own systems while using these systems and then decide if you want to continue their systems or not. They will always probably get some business you would not have gotten otherwise even if you had your own online systems.
2. Unfortunately you are only "renting" the methods used to get the business you are being sent and don't "own" the business methods used. If you had the correct Internet marketing system up you would have a salable asset in those systems and be driving traffic exclusively to you, which is almost certainly better than this option in the long run for most (if not all) attorneys. Additionally, as a general principle it is not good to be dependent on any one source of referrals. That said, I still think attorney-client matching services are a good option until you have your own Internet marketing systems and/or other marketing systems up. You may even want to continue these services after you have your own systems up. Having your own systems up makes you more secure and gives you a choice about staying with the service or not.
3. Who is this marketing vehicle for?
a. A lawyer who needs more business right now. These systems have a stream of business coming right now and they can send it your way right now. Other attorney marketing systems will take some time to yield results.
b. Lawyer who are very clear that they don't want to be involved in the marketing process and are willing to pay someone else to do it for them even if it costs them more and they are "renting." If that is you, then this is probably a good move for you. That said, you are still going to have to "close" the client they send you via email or on the phone, so you are going to be involved in marketing at that level. You are never going to get away from that aspect unless you are an associate who does nothing but technical work in someone else's practice.
c. A lawyer who is doing some marketing that is not working very effectively for them. With attorney matching you may be able to reduce your marketing costs while increasing your revenue stream.
d. Finally, a partner level attorney who has a senior associate with good people skills and could work this marketing vehicle and close the referred clients.
4. Who is this type of attorney marketing not for?
a. Someone who won't attend to the referrals from the matching service most (if not nearly every) working day.
b. Someone who does not have fair to good "closing skills" or "bedside manner." You are not the only attorney getting the referral from the match firm, so you need to "shine" well enough to get hired. There is still an element of competition involved with maybe 3 to 5 other attorneys who got the same referral.
c. Someone in a geographic area that does not generate a lot of referrals in your practice area -- like a rural area or small town, or maybe an estate planner in a low-income area.
5. The negative information on LegalMatch and CasePost is somewhat troubling to me even though much of it is from the past and has been positively addressed. The negative information of the past on LegalMatch appears not to have troubled the Utah Bar, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. This is reassuring to me.
6. If you were reasonably sure this type of vehicle is for you I would go with LegalMatch first. I am presuming you are willing to work their system diligently and have at least low to average "closing" skills (they will work with you to get your closing ratio up if you need some support in that area). Why LegalMatch? They have more than 1,500 members currently (a good sign I think), more than 90 employees and have been in business the longest. I figure that gives them an edge in knowledge, results and staying in business over time. Additionally, their "footprint" of bringing business to their members is almost certainly larger because they have more resources to drive business to their site than the others.
If for some reason you are uncertain if this type of marketing is for you then I would go with LegalFish first. The LegalFish option would allow you to get into this marketing arena now with less expense and less risk than LegalMatch or CasePost. Do realize the LegalFish attorney marketing "footprint" is going to be much smaller than either of the other two services, so they won't be sending as large a volume of business your way almost certainly. Do be sure you have in your agreement with LegalFish that they will not charge you for the months they do not send you business. If you had a good experience working the referrals from LegalFish, diligently worked the system almost daily, realized a good return on your investment and you wanted to do more, then I would look into LegalMatch next. If you find that you really liked LegalMatch or LegalFish, there is nothing wrong with belonging to two or even three of the services.
7. If you decide to become a member with LegalMatch, Case Post and/or LegalFish remember your financial arrangement and term of membership are somewhat to greatly negotiable. Negotiate a favorable agreement for yourself. Naturally, if you can get references of current members to contact from them in your practice area and in a similar type market to yours before you sign your agreement, so much the better.
8. I probably would not go with Lawyers.com at this point. Why? First, no guarantee. Next, Lawyers.com does not appear to me to be promoting that part of the site enough. Additionally, I am not sure it is worth the cost of the bio and the fee that together will run at least $2,400 for the year. I suspect this money could be better put to use with one of the "big three." Lastly, given that the consumer has a list of attorneys that could be large (search on the site for your zip code and practice areas and see how large it is for your area) you are going to be in a crowd. It seems there is no way to impact the consumers' thinking in your direction at the point where they are selecting whom to contact.
An exception to this thinking is if you already have a bio listing with them (and it is delivering business to you). Then this add-on service might be a useful attorney marketing move given that you would only be spending $495 more per year. Be sure to keep good records and see if it produces any business for you. If not you would stop the service.
9. I would probably not go with LegalConnection.com at this point. Why? No guarantee. I do see it as an advantage that it is a stand-alone, away from the FindLaw.com site. For that reason alone I would favor it over Lawyers.com, however, I don't see LegalConnection.com or Lawyers.com as being in the same class as the "big three" at this point in time.