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Internet Marketing and Lawyer-Client Matchmakers

Web sites, referral services, and listings with matchmakers can get lawyers clients

By Carole Levitt
Carole Levitt, president of Internet For Lawyers
, is an Internet, software, and electronic marketing consultant.

An Internet market researcher recently predicted that consumers will spend $222 million for online legal services this year and that the market will grow to $2.8 billion by 2004. Consumers have realized that they can use Web sites to make targeted searches, finding attorneys with the desired practice areas and geographic locations. Also, many consumers know that some legal services can be dispensed over the Internet. To meet this demand, attorneys may want to market themselves through online attorney directories and sites that match attorneys with cases.

In the past year, dozens of matchmaking sites have entered the marketplace, from the Shark Tank (having "attorneys ready to attack your case") to the more traditional- sounding Legal Match. Often the entrepreneur at the helm of a new matchmaking site is an attorney who has left the practice of law to venture into e-commerce. Slightly more senior in the online matchmaking marketplace are two print publishers' sites: West Group's lawoffice.com and the Martindale-Hubbell Lawyer Locator (along with its more consumer-friendly lawyers.com).

Attorneys need not prequalify to register at most sites beyond verifying that they are licensed at the time of registration. None of the sites recommends attorneys, but some display prior clients' ratings. I ran a test search on one site and discovered that none of the attorneys selected had been rated. Some sites charge the attorney for the listing, while others charge the consumer for access. In either case, the charge is never called a referral fee. The information that firms and solo attorneys input into the matchmaking sites can include firm name, specialties, Web and e-mail address, philosophy and business practices, gender, date of birth, degrees earned, years of experience, photo, state bar number, beginning practice date, honors, affiliations, publications, hourly rate, and types of clients.

Some matchmaking sites follow a reverse auction model. Attorneys who fit within a potential client's geographic and practice parameters review the case before deciding whether or not to bid on it. Attorneys bid by e-mail to the consumer, who has anonymously submitted the case information. Posing as a consumer, I tested this model at the Legal Match site. After registering and agreeing to the contract terms, the consumer posts a case on a newly created personal page. The consumer selects a legal topic from a short list. (If a matter does not fit any of the topics, the consumer is out of luck.) Once a topic is selected, a list of subtopics and a list of issues are offered for further selection. Finally, a menu appears in which to pose a question anonymously. Some of the intake questions asked on the post-a-case page are whether the consumer is an individual or business, the geographic region where legal assistance is needed, and whether there has been an attorney on the case in the past.

Within seconds of submission of my case, a message arrived to indicate that 88 attorneys in the database practiced in my selected area of law. Legal Match e-mailed the intake information to each attorney in this group. Within two days, four attorneys responded. The other 84 attorneys did not respond within the five-day deadline. To learn who the responding attorneys were, I returned to my personal page, where their names, biographies, and contact information were posted. No personal messages from the responding attorneys appeared, however. After reviewing the credentials, I had the option of sending an e-mail message or using the phone to contact the attorneys.

I e-mailed attorneys Jerry Gerstenfeld and Robert Aronoff and asked them to call me to discuss my case and to discuss their experience with matchmaking services. Both called me within a day. Jerry Gerstenfeld, in practice for 47 years, joined the online world belatedly but ambitiously. In the past year, Gerstenfeld launched a Web site and registered with 23 online matchmaking and attorney directory sites at a cost of $100 to $125 per site. He attributes his own Web site, however, with generating most of his online client referrals. The one consumer who did find him through a matchmaking site brought a lucrative case, but not to Gerstenfeld. The case needed to be referred to a litigator, who generated fees of $80,000.

Gerstenfeld intends to renew most of his matchmaking subscriptions. He favors sites that provide the type of e-mail notification that Legal Match does. (By the way, as a lawyer I can say that Gerstenfeld provided me with useful legal advice about my hypothetical case, and as a consumer I was more than satisfied with my experience.) In contrast to Gerstenfeld's 23 paid subscriptions, Aronoff, who has been in practice for 25 years, subscribed to only those few sites that provided free trial offers. Receiving about one lead per week, he concluded that most of the referred consumers were looking for free advice or a contingency arrangement. For marketing himself online, Aronoff places more stock in his listing as a bankruptcy specialist at the State Bar's site than his listings on matchmaking sites.

What the Sites Offer

If the experiences of Aronoff and Gerstenfeld are any indication, the competition for online business is already strong, but an expanding $222-million market is hard to ignore. Attorneys considering a foray into online marketing have many matchmaking sites to choose from. For example, Right Pro, another matchmaking site, offers an interesting added feature for attorneys-a market intelligence report showing how many consumers searched for attorneys in the listing attorney's practice area, how often the listing attorney's name appeared in search results, and how often consumers clicked on the listing attorney's profile. The reasons why a potential client chose one attorney over another are also provided. The reasons for rejection include rates that were too high or too low, client ratings not being high enough, and the firm not being large enough.

Most matchmaking sites are aimed at attracting individual clients, but some (such as eLaw Forum.com and Legal Path) refer businesses. These sites match attorneys with corporations seeking outside counsel. Corporations post requests for proposals (RFPs) for legal work needed and select from attorneys who respond.

At eLaw Forum.com, neither the 700 registered attorneys and firms (including White & Case, Baker & McKenzie, and Howrey Simon) nor the 80 corporations (including Chevron, Sears, and Daimler-Chrysler) pay to register. Instead, eLaw Forum earns a 2 percent fee based upon what the corporation pays the firm. Registration at eLaw Forum is open to anyone, but corporations determine which law firms may view their RFPs, and law firms are blocked from viewing the list of other registered firms or corporations.

At Legal Path.com, in contrast, an annual subscriber fee (ranging from $275 per attorney for firms with up to five attorneys to $150 per attorney for firms with up to 50 attorneys) is assessed. Three insurance companies and 50 firms were registered by October 2000, and 550 cases were successfully matched.

Ethical Considerations

Members of the ABA and many state and local bar associations are debating whether online matchmaking sites fall under the purview of the lawyer referral services rules-and thus are violating the rules by failing to register with, for example, the California State Bar. The sites use disclaimers to reject the notion that they are referral services. The user agreements of eLaw Forum and Shark Tank, for instance, claim that their services are only a venue and are not involved in transactions between lawyers and consumers. Rightpro.com, which charges attorneys a subscriber fee of $149 per month (after a free three-month trial period) asserts, "We are NOT a referral service. We do not recommend one professional over any other. We do not receive commissions or referral fees from professionals." Nevertheless, according to Patricia Holt, directing attorney for the Association's Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS), a "subscriber" fee is merely a euphemism.

Holt also asserts that matchmaking sites that do not prequalify attorneys run afoul of the stringent rules found in Section 6155 of the Business and Professions Code and the minimum standards for a lawyer referral service in California. As a result, matchmaking sites may not offer consumers the same degree of protection regarding competent representation that a state-registered referral service can. Indeed, Shark Tank claims to have "no control over the quality…or legality of the services listed." Legal Match's press package states that it screens attorneys by checking bar status, but the online contract states that it checks only at the time of registration and "does not screen or vouch for any of its users…[nor] continuously review the standing of any attorney subscriber." On the other hand, Legal Path requires proof of malpractice insurance and checks discipline records for the last three years.

According to Holt, these verification measures pale in comparison to the attorney screening performed by the LRIS, which checks that the attorney is a member of the State Bar, has malpractice insurance, and has no discipline record. In addition, the LRIS also checks that attorneys have appropriate experience (based upon criteria such as the number of similar cases handled, similar documents drafted, etc.), and the LRIS staff and a volunteer advisory board review the personal recommendations that attorneys are required to provide.

Reservations about sites that claim not to be referral services are understandable, but Holt is not as concerned about directory sites such as Martindale-Hubbell. She indicates that Martindale does not charge attorneys for listings and thus cannot be accused of recommending one attorney over another. The Martindale directory, however, offers premium listings for a fee, and its Lawyers.com site, where users submit an anonymous e-mail request for legal services, blurs the distinction between matchmaking sites and attorney directory sites.

Before signing up with an online matchmaking service, find out how many consumers or businesses visit the site daily and look closely at the fees and other obligations. Read the FAQs, press releases, and third-party reviews of each site. Consider contacting some of the attorneys listed in the site directories to find out what their success has been. Finally, consider additional avenues, including a Web site (or site upgrade) for the firm and listings with more traditional referral and directory services.

Copyright 2001,Los Angeles Lawyer Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

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