The way that people find lawyers has changed dramatically over the past decade.
Word of mouth has always been important – but it is hard to find any criminal law firm that does not advertise or market itself in one way or another; whether through online directory listings, a dedicated website, Google Adwords, Facebook, newspapers, radio, picking up clients by undertaking legal aid duty work, giving presentations at community legal centres and programs like the Traffic Offender Program, and even ‘jail trawling’.
But an emerging trend appears to be ‘customer interface’ models, where prospective clients bypass individual law firm marketing in favour of comparative websites where they can choose from thousands of lawyers.
Customer Interface Models
Various highly-successful customer interface models have been around for a long time. Examples include Ebay, Booking.com, Webjet etc. They are characterised by the fact that they do not directly provide their listed goods, services or content themselves.
“Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.”
Such models have been around in the Australian legal services sector for many years, but none have really taken off.
For a time, legal directories like lawyers.com.au were reasonably popular amongst law firms and consumers – occupying the top spots in search engine listings for popular phrases like ‘criminal lawyers’ and ‘criminal lawyers sydney’. But their popularity has waned – and consumers are once again looking for lawyers by browsing through individual law firm websites.
The situation in the United States is a little different. There, a giant company has revolutionised the way that prospective clients access legal services.
‘Avvo’ is short for ‘Avvocato’, which means ‘lawyer’ in Italian.
Avvo.com is an American website that allows consumers to compare and rate lawyers, and obtain free legal advice. There is no emphasis on particular law firms, but rather on individual lawyers – or ‘attorneys’ as the US calls them.
Avvo is an ‘online marketplace’ where users can choose a lawyer based on client ratings and formal sanctions against them, rather than on the reputation of the firm they are a part of. The company generates millions of dollars per year by selling monthly subscriptions and advertising to lawyers.
The Avvo website has an extensive Question and Answer section, where users post questions that can be answered by lawyers. ‘Avvo Answers’ currently has answers to over 6.7 million questions. Those answers are ranked for their usefulness, and lawyers who regularly receive positive reviews and post the most useful answers will normally receive the highest rankings.
Avvo.com attracts a mind-boggling 8 million visitors per month; and despite initial resistance from the notoriously conservative legal profession, an impressive 20% of all lawyers the US had subscribed to the service by 2014.
As with many innovators, Avvo has certainly had its fair share of controversy over the years – having to deal with several lawsuits from disgruntled lawyers.
Back in 2007, for example, two lawyers filed a class action lawsuit against Avvo for libel, claiming that their low ratings and the publication of disciplinary action that had been brought against them damaged their reputation, causing them to lose money.
Avvo defended the lawsuit on the basis that the published information was protected by the first amendment to the US constitution, namely the right to free of speech.
The Court agreed with Avvo, dismissing the claim and awarding legal costs to the company.
In an ensuing press release, Avvo’s CEO stated that:
“To provide consumers with the information and guidance to help them choose the right lawyer, sometimes we need to shine a flashlight into some dark places, and we’ll continue to do so as long as it benefits consumers.”
What About Australia?
A whole host of companies have tried to emulate Avvo’s success here, marketing themselves as the future of Australian legal service providers.
LawDingo, LawGuru, LawPath, LawAdvisor, LegallyYours – the list goes on and on. They all claim to be innovative, but are remarkably similar to the long-established Avvo model.
However, the lack of innovation is certainly no recipe for disaster – to the contrary, if one such company gets a foothold in the Australian legal services market, it could have a significant impact upon the way that local consumers look for lawyers, and consequently upon the relevance of individual law firm websites, and even the law firm model itself.