Update – 6/19/2011 – opposing views, end of post
As proprietor of MyShingle, a hub for solo and small firm lawyers, I receive calls and emails every few days pitching the latest, greatest online marketing tools. When I don’t jump at the chance to hop into an affiliate relationship (which I don’t do ) or accept a few pennies to place an ad on my site, I’m usually berated with a “get with the program” speech about how lawyers need to get on line right now because that’s where the clients are.
Now, you don’t need to convince me that the Internet is the place to be. I’ve had a web presence for over 15 years, when the principals of most of these lawyer marketing companies were probably in grade school. But the reason that I’ve not been moved to endorse most of these companies isn’t because I don’t appreciate the power of the Internet, but rather because most of the services either raise serious ethics questions” or are wildly expensive or downright cheesy. Moreover, what galls me most about these companies is that many focus on making money off of lawyers – either through subscription or membership fees or pay-per-clicks – and lawyers pay something whether the site performs or not (true, with pay-per click, lawyers pay only for clicks that generate leads. But there’s no guarantee that a lead will pan out either, leaving the lawyer stuck with the bill).
So amidst this sea of waste, I was pleasantly surprised to learn through the New York Times about LawyerUp, which bills itself as “America’s First Urgent Legal Dispatch Service.” Designed to put individuals in legal dire situations (think late-night arrests or domestic violence situations) in touch with a lawyer within 15 minutes 24/7, LawyerUp works very much like AAA, charging a membership fee (in this case, $4.95 per month or around $60/year) to individuals who might use the service. When an emergency arises, a Lawyer Up subscriber can call the service, which maintains a roster of several hundred lawyers who have been vetted for experience . Lawyer-Up collects a $250 fee at the time of the call and subsequently dispatches the lawyer. (It seems that LawyerUp passes the fee on to the lawyer without taking a piece of it, which would otherwise constitute fee-splitting).
So here’s what I like about LawyerUp. (and no, they’ve not asked me to write this post or paid me for a mention. Fancy that – an honest review!) First, the company earns its money off the potential recipients of the service, not the lawyer-providers. Not only does that remove a cost hurdle for lawyers, but it also means that when users call for a dispatch, they are more likely to hire the lawyer. After all, by paying for the subscription service they’ve indicated that they recognize the potential value of having a lawyer. Second, the service markets to students and young people, which is a brilliant idea. I’ve always thought that the student market might be a potential niche for younger lawyers starting out – but to make it work, you really need to market to parents, not students. Lawyer Up fills that void; I could easily see parents purchasing a Lawyer Up subscription for a new college student in the way that they might purchase a AAA subscription for a new driver. Third, LawyerUp screens lawyers beyond simply determining whether they have a bar number. Though the system may not be perfect, presumably, at least the disbarred and the disciplined are eliminated. Finally, LawyerUp is the first service I’ve seen that gives newer, hungry lawyers a foot in the door. Let’s face it – an experienced lawyer with a full roster of clients isn’t going to be inclined to accept midnight or weekend phone calls (unless, of course, they’re from an existing client). But newer solos starting out – or at least those who are going to succeed – can make themselves available at odd hours to pick a handful of cases to start generating some income.
LawyerUp isn’t perfect, by any stretch. The website pitch is a little over the top, playing to clients’ worst fears. But the truth of the matter is, folks are arrested every day and do stupid things at the time of the incident which get them into worse trouble down the line. So while the marketing may be a tacky or “tasteless” in the words of Ralph Monaco, president of the Connecticut Bar Association who’s quoted in the New York Times story, it’s not deceptive. (Just to spell it out for disciplinary committees, deceptive = unethical. tacky = embarrassing, but ethical). Meanwhile, I’m not sure how lawyers will “gouge” clients on fees. Clients pay only a $250 fee up front; the lawyer still has to set and collect the rest of the retainer or will wind up stiffed. And to the extent that lawyers do try to overcharge to take advantage of clients in trouble, it would be perfectly appropriate for the bar to take a close look if a grievance is ever filed.
Lawyers who sign up for Lawyer Up shouldn’t expect much in the way of clients either. The NYT also reports that 700 people have signed up for LawyerUp, but only a handful have called. On the other hand, because LawyerUp is free, attorneys who register don’t lose out – and of course, there’s nothing to stop them from offering similar 24/7 services independently through their firms.