Part 1 of this two-part series focuses on online document services through which users can conduct legal business without the direct assistance of an actual attorney.
Self-promotion: Some would say that lawyers excel at it, but when it comes to actual advertising and marketing, a lot of them can be a step or two behind other businesses.
“In the 1960s, my dad — who was a lawyer — sent a note to a client telling him to call if he had any questions about a certain issue,” Adrian Lurssen, Director of Communications at JDSupra.com, told the E-Commerce Times. “One of his colleagues questioned the letter because it seemed like the firm was inappropriately soliciting new business.”
There are several reasons for this reluctance to use advertising to build one’s practice. Traditionally, the law prohibited lawyers from advertising their services. Also much of their business has come from the best advertising of all — word of mouth — leaving many to feel it unnecessary to go through more direct channels.
Now, almost a decade after the dot-com boom, lawyers have taken to the Internet, hawking their resources in various ways. In many instances, they are touting their own abilities and fishing for new clients. In other instances, they are actually conducting initial consultations online. Eventually, the idea of virtual lawyers might emerge, so one may use legal services without ever sitting down face-to-face with one’s attorney.
Lawyers Go Online
“Just putting background information on the Web can be an exercise in futility because there are so many sites,” Ryan Sabia, president of Interactive Technologies, which operates the OnlineConsultation.com, told the E-Commerce Times. If one pulls up a search for “lawyer” on Yahoo, 382 million hits come up.
In response, sites have emerged that help consumers find appropriate lawyers in their areas. These sites are blurring the lines between marketing and actually delivering legal services, since many of them offer a mix of the two.
Do I Have a Case?
One popular option has been consolidation services — sites that collect information from a variety of other sites and try to help users sift through them, find the most relevant data, and then begin the process of hiring a lawyer.
One such site goes by the apt name Lawyers.com. It’s operated by Martindale-Hubbell, a subsidiary of LexisNexis that has been providing information for the legal profession for more than 140 years. Individuals can search over 1 million lawyers and law firms in over 160 countries by entering a variety of criteria, such name, geographic location, practice area, firm size and languages. The site includes an Attorney Match feature, where consumers enter information about their potential case, have a lawyer review it, and then receive a response about the validity of the case.
FindLaw, a Thomson Reuters subsidiary, has focused on providing online legal information to consumers and Internet marketing services to law firms since 1995. The company has more than 500 employees generates over than US$100 million in annual revenue. Its site features synopses of different cases, local and national statutes, legal news, a lawyer directory, an online career center, and community-oriented tools, such as mailing lists and message boards. After entering information about their legal questions, customers can check off a box for free initial consultation.
JD Supra has taken a slightly different track on its site. Lawyers dip into their hard drives for articles, court papers, legal briefs and other tidbits of their craft and that information becomes the site’s content. “Lawyers upload relevant documents as well as profiles of themselves, so consumers can get a good idea about whom they might hire,” said Lurssen. Site visitors can use a searchable database to look up, say, “trademark infringement,” find related documents and, if they are impressed with the author’s experience, click on his or her profile to set up an initial consultation.
Willing to Take On All Cases
At OnlineConsultation.com, customers set up a free account, ask a question, and then receive a response. The potential client can choose how detailed he or she wants the professional’s response to be: basic, intermediate or advanced. The professional will cater his/her response accordingly and may charge a fee based on the type of service requested.
The various sites are willing to help consumers and businesses with any type of legal issue ranging from traffic tickets to bankruptcy to homicide. In fact, one Chicago firm touted its ability to gain multiple not guilty verdicts in murder cases and touted an NBC movie based on one of its cases.
There are advantages to holding the initial consultation online. “Many of the initial consultations are short and focus on items such as trying to determine whether or not there is a fit,” said Interactive Technologies’ Sabia. If there isn’t a good match, neither side ends up wasting as much time or effort. Also, the lawyer and client have access to a wider pool of potential partners than with traditional selection methods.
However, there are some challenges with the process. Lawyers are licensed by state, so consumers do not have free rein to all of the potential law firms on a site. The site operators have tried to make the process easier by having users identify which state they live in at the start of the process.
There is also the ever-present issue of “buyer beware.” While the sites list different law firms, they do not verify each professional’s credentials. It’s up to the consumer to check out a potential lawyer’s background and make sure he or she can deliver the advertised services.
Despite those issues, the use of these sites is increasing. “Younger lawyers who are comfortable with technology see online consultations as the next logical step in improving their profession’s efficiency,” said Sabia. Eventually, these sites may evolve to cover more than initial consultations, so in the future, cases could conceivably be settled without the client and the lawyer having ever held a face-to-face meeting.