Find a lawyer: Arizona Bar’s online site matches clients, attorneys

PHOENIX – Becky Caudle wanted just the right match.

The relationship with her employer was about to change under new ownership, so the physician’s assistant wanted to make sure she was treated well.

She called the State Bar of Arizona, one of 30,000 calls the bar gets every year seeking help finding legal representation. For years, the bar had turned away questions about referrals, but last spring, it launched Find-a-Lawyer.

The service allows consumers to post their legal needs online for free, looking for a personal injury, divorce or other type of lawyer and searching such parameters as affordability and discipline records. It’s part of a national trend to make hiring an attorney as accessible as finding a plumber, baby sitter or romantic partner.

Caudle posted on the website to determine whether an attorney was interested in looking over her new contract. She only got one match but liked his work, and returned to him a year later.

“It’s kind of like eharmony, or LendingTree,” said John Phelps, adviser to the chief executive of the Arizona bar. “Without this kind of site, we think consumers are kind of stuck doing a scavenger hunt.”

Supporters say the online legal service makes attorneys more accessible to people with lower incomes and connects the state’s 18,500 lawyers to possible pro bono cases. Every lawyer in the state has access to the site, but there’s a limit to customers because only Arizona attorneys who pay a $300 annual subscription fee can contact clients. Nearly 300 attorneys have done so; however, every Arizona attorney has access to the site.

What consumers get out of it

Michael Wiles, a marketing professor at Arizona State University, said consumers might value Find-a-Lawyer as one-stop shopping for attorneys. Searching for a lawyer often means calling multiple firms or searching websites, only to repeat similar background information or be told the lawyer isn’t taking new cases.

But looking for a compatible attorney online, without any real life interaction, could mean consumers miss verbal and non-verbal cues that would help solidify their choices, said Wiles, of the W.P. Carey School of Business.

He likened Find-a-Lawyer more to a car buying service than online dating site but warned that finding a lawyer online is riskier than finding a plumber online.

“If you buy a product like a car, or use referral services for small contracting services, there’s not as much risk involved,” Wiles said. “With legal issues, there’s more at play.”

– Video by State Bar of Arizona

How it works

Other services such as Lawyers.com, Lawyers.FindLaw.com, and Avvo, sort by zip code and case type and display attorney’s biographies, putting consumers in control. Phelps said state bar associations in Utah and Nevada recently have launched platforms, but with less advanced search functions than Arizona’s.

Find-a-Lawyer, launched last May, provides an index of attorneys with biographical and other information, but it goes a step further by having clients post their legal needs. Consumers then wait for interested lawyers to respond.

Sharon Moyer, supervising attorney at ASU Alumni Law Group, a not-for-profit educational law firm that offers discounted rates, said she has received about 20 client consultations through Find-a-Lawyer.

“Because we can do those initial consults for less, we get a lot of interest on Find-a-Lawyer,” Moyer said, adding that she receives around 10 emails a day from the service.

It also helps her weed out deadend cases and, hopefully, give her clients some peace of mind, she said.

“Even if I have to tell a client, ‘Based on what you’re telling me, I don’t see any cause of action, you just need to accept what happened and move on.’ To me, that still provides a service,” she said.

Balancing value between attorneys and clients

Arizona State Bar leaders said they are trying to serve attorneys and clients both.

Cheryl Kulas, manager of the public service center for the state bar, said they want to add more paying attorneys to the system but have to be strategic about the website’s growth. Too many cases and not enough attorneys wouldn’t be useful for clients. But too many attorneys on the site could lead to a battle for clients and undercut the annual $300 subscription fee.

The current ratio of attorneys to cases on the site is about 10 cases per attorney.

Kulas said she’s reaching out to attorneys who practice in specific areas, such as divorce, that are seeing a growing number of cases on the service.

“I don’t know what a good ratio of attorneys to cases is yet, because we’re learning as we go,” Kulas said.

Marketing is low key for now, with clients who call the state bar being referred to the Find-a-Lawyer site and planned outreach to small business groups.

The future of Find-a-Lawyer

As with any business, the service won’t reach everyone, including those who can’t afford it, don’t value it or don’t need it.

Frederick Berry, who has practiced insurance law in metro Phoenix for years, said the platform is a great service for consumers, although he isn’t a subscriber.

He’s doing consulting work for other attorneys and not taking cases at the moment, but he uses the site’s directory to get in touch with other lawyers.

The Arizona bar plans to expand the service by reaching beyond urban areas. Kulas said most clients and attorneys are concentrated in Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff, but rural Arizonans need lawyers, too, and are posting on Find-a-Lawyer.

“Are you going to have an intellectual-property lawyer in Yuma County?” Kulas asked. “Probably not.”

Some features could include video conferencing, she said.

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