Online Lawyers: Starting to Click
By Ted Popper
It's no secret that the Internet is revolutionizing America's shopping habits. With everything from banking to deals on cars and medical advice now available online, why have lawyers been slow to hang their shingles in cyberspace? True, many law offices now have their own Web sites, but for plaintiffs shopping for counsel, those store windows on a particular firm's skills and specialties offer little opportunity for comparison shopping.
Back in 1999, when attorney Dmitry Shubov rejected his profession's conventional wisdom and launched San Francisco-based LegalMatch.com, he aimed to prove the traditionalists wrong. Many potential clients, he reasoned, knew so little about the law that they preferred to simply ignore it. Facing time-consuming and potentially expensive quests to find the right lawyer -- the one with the specific expertise their cases demanded -- they chose to avoid or settle disputes they might otherwise have won. "It's almost like going to a dentist," Shubov says, "It's not that they are afraid of spending the money…they're afraid of the whole process of searching." (See BW Online, 9/24/03, "We Shrank to a Small-Business Model")
William Hornsby, staff counsel for the American Bar Association (ABA), agrees: "There is a widely unmet need for legal services." And that can open the way for unfortunate, even tragic, confrontations. Adds Hornsby: "Too frequently, people use violence, which has historically been a dispute-resolution technique."
CLICK TO SHOP.
LegalMatch aims to minimize that two-fisted temptation to step off that civilized road to resolution. Free to anyone looking for a lawyer, potential clients fill out a series of online forms that are intended to cover the issues typically canvassed in the first 30 minutes of an initial, in-office consultation. LegalMatch then determines which area of law the case falls under, and posts a description on a members-only Web site, where member attorneys with specific expertise can review it. Those interested in taking on the brief then bid for the work. The site gets its revenue from subscription fees paid by the lawyers who sign on.
To say that the legal profession is divided by entrepreneurial attorney Shubov's innovation would be an understatement. The Utah State Bar is currently negotiating a deal that would see LegalMatch replace the state's existing, not-for-profit referral service. Says State Bar spokesman Toby Brown of LegalMatch: "The client has much more information upfront, and from more than one lawyer, so they can compare."
Not all bar associations view LegalMatch so favorably. For decades, the legal profession has taken a dim view of its members paying middlemen for referrals, and up until about eight years ago, the practice was prohibited by most state bar associations. The idea was to prevent lawyers becoming more responsive to marketers than clients.
"This kind of restriction all began fifty years ago, when lawyers would hire runners to interview people in the accident ward and give them one of the lawyer's cards," says Harvard Law School's professor Andrew L. Kaufman, who also chairs the ethics committee of the Massachusetts State Bar Assn. "The fear is that if legal referrals are done as a money-making venture, they won't be done with the best interests of the client in mind." According to Shubov, those objections and restrictions don't apply to LegalMatch, since his outfit isn't an online ambulance-chaser. Rather, he says, it simply provides a means for people who want a lawyer to find one. The ABA's Hornsby endorses that view, saying: "It's the same as buying an add in the Yellow Pages."
Many lawyers remain unconvinced by Shubov's arguments, however. Chris Burdick, executive director of the Santa Clara (Calif.) County Bar Association, a voluntary organization that runs its own online referral service, is concerned that such services don't have to register with state bar associations, and also because they keep the names of lawyers who register to themselves. That means, she says, that there is no way for consumers to rate the overall quality of LegalMatch's lawyer-screening process. In Utah, Toby Brown also expressed a measure of concern about LegalMatch's disclosure policy, but added that it was one of the key issues he expected to see sorted out during the ongoing negotiations.
Shubov stands by LegalMatch's screening process. Though he was unwilling to explain why he keeps subscribing lawyers' names confidential, he did point out that LegalMatch provides prospective clients with a profile and background information on every attorney who makes an offer via his service. There is no obligation for clients to accept any offers, he notes, so they have the opportunity to research the background of the lawyers before retaining them. Since a client is likely to be contacted by more than one attorney for any given case, they can also compare and contrast the services and expertise on offer before making a selection.
Shubov contends that state bar associations are indulging in petty quibbles -- and he's forthright in attributing a motive for doing so. "Bar associations are one of our primary competitors," he says. "What they charge you money for, we do for free."
Shubov feels opposition from traditionalists will disappear as his business model proves itself. "Legal Match puts the consumers and the small businesses that come to us first," he says. "Because of that, we are much more ethical than anything else out there. Once that's accepted by the community as a whole, it will be accepted by lawyers who are more slow to adapt." Until then, the jury remains out.
Popper reports on small-business matters from New York