The modern era of “on demand,” streaming and App-based delivery of goods and services have undoubtedly transformed the global marketplace. Consumer expectations for online-access to immediate, “on demand,” menu-based offerings and have led to a tremendous choice in the marketplace. We can watch, listen to, and buy what we want, when we want to – no matter the time of day, or our geographic location.
The legal industry is certainly not immune to consumer trends, and for the past several years, the drift has been toward comparing lawyers like cans on the shelf. This “consumer choice” is largely promoted by internet businesses who have found a way to monetize the commoditization of legal services. These companies are not law firms, and are frequently not owned or managed by lawyers. Nevertheless, their disruption of traditional legal markets has been profound, and will effect lawyers’ business development activities for the foreseeable future.
Undeniably, these startups’ true genius lies in their ability to simultaneously pry money both from lawyers seeking to outshine their competitors, and from consumers of legal services – the prospective legal clients. The simplicity of the business model is quite beautiful: charge lawyers hefty fees to advertise and promote their profiles, and charge consumers for access to the site or, better yet, sell them pre-packaged, downloadable products that enable them to perform do-it-yourself legal work. As one commentator put it, “attorneys and clients are both customer and product.”
I vehemently believe that there exists an insidious underbelly to the online legal marketplace, and particularly in the for-profit websites that provide in-house “ratings” or comparisons of lawyers. My belief is neither unique, nor new. In an era where companies like LegalZoom and AVVO have the resources to run Super Bowl commercials, many legal commentators have bemoaned the obvious: “traditional legal services” are facing an existential challenge from online alternatives.
WHY FOR-PROFIT LEGAL MARKETPLACES ARE MISLEADING
Most problematic is that the rating criteria used by online legal marketplaces are highly artificial and unregulated. In particular, those sites that allow a lawyer to “claim” or “unlock” their listing by paying a fee or purchasing advertising contain few safeguards against exaggerations and outright falsehoods in lawyers’ self-promotion. Like fishermen, lawyers are infamous for embellishment when describing their accomplishments.
Another pitfall is the subjective nature of the ratings systems, and the weight assigned to the various categories upon which the ratings are based. Where criteria of unequal significance to an actual client are treated equivalently, there is ample potential for the legal consumer to be fooled into hiring less competent (or even patently unqualified) counsel. For example, an attorney licensed for 30 years who has tried scores of cases to a jury but spends no time “building” his profile may well rate “lower” than a neophyte who obsesses over her online profile but has never participated in voir dire. This is possible because some lawyer ratings sites assign equal weight to considerations as diverse as length of licensure, number of published opinions, profile photo submission, and willingness to deliver free services by “answering questions” free of charge to website visitors.
Let me be clear: it is rare that apples are being compared to apples. This is dangerous because the “real world” of litigation, transactions and legal advice are teeming with potential pitfalls whose risks are mitigated only by the services of a competent attorney. Frequently, the attorney you need is not the one with the “best” profile who spends her time answering legal questions from faceless internet surfers for free.
Commoditization of Lawyers Undermines the Attorney-Client Relationship
My legal career began in the late 1990s. I made it all the way through college and law school with only minimal use of the internet. Google was formed the year after I became an attorney, and Wikipedia was launched a few years later. There was no Facebook or social media, and for that I am glad.
I distinctly remember my first law firm paying big bucks to obtain favorable placement of its “double truck” ad in the phone book’s Yellow Pages. We would give our clients T-shirts and cheap tchotchkes to “goodwill them” when we delivered their settlement checks or final legal documents. In short, we got our business the “old-fashioned way” through word of mouth referrals and non-computerized advertising.
I have embraced the digital age, as evidenced by the fact that this website has been around for more than a decade. But I still believe that the best means of generating new clients is treating existing clients well, and impressing opposing counsel with aggressive, yet professional, advocacy.
My rainmaking strategy can be summarized in a single word: RELATIONSHIPS. This tactic has worked well for 20 years now, and because of relationships, I am daily blessed with more opportunities for client engagements than I could possibly undertake.
Commoditizing lawyers and legal services through packaged offerings similar to lunchtime to dim sum carts undermines critical personal interaction, and debases one of the most important components of the attorney-client relationship. Websites that operate under the principle that what consumers truly desire is routine legal work at a discounted price in much the same manner as Hotwire plays travel agent are mistaken. Time and again, my clients have proven that they want a trusted advisor, a go-to sounding board, and a talented advocate-in-wait.
More than a handful of my clients have utilized my services for more than 10 years, and I have numerous others for whom I have handled several dozen legal matters. Not every one of them needs me every day, month or even year. But when they do need a lawyer, they know exactly who they are going to call, and what kind of service they will receive. When their friends, family members or business associates are in need of a lawyer, they pass along my contact information with a strong personal recommendation. This is the type of endorsement that could never be bought through an AVVO star rating or paid ad on another legal directory.
There are few professional events that excite me more than hearing from an old client on a new legal matter. When they come calling, they can expect a made-to-order, narrowly-tailored legal solution to a unique problem. New clients who engage my services can expect the same thing. This simple model has worked for hundreds of years, and remains the solid foundation of my thriving practice.
So please pardon my refusal to participate in the “new” legal marketplace characterized by DIY offerings, alternative pricing, limited “menu” engagements and pay-to-play ad placement and “leads.” Forgive me too, if I think that following prognostication from a respected author is absolute hogwash.