With last week’s announcement of Legal Zoom’s recent partnership with Sam’s Club to offer deals on legal services as well as Avvo’s launch of Avvo Advisor, the blogosphere’s abuzz with discussion of “should lawyers participate or shouldn’t they?” ( See  Susan Cartier-Liebel, The Bridge Builders  at Above the Law, Bob Ambrogi’s coverage of Avvo Advisor and Law Dingo  (offering a similar service to Avvo)and Victor Li at the ABA Journal.

Of course, the $39/15-minute question is: should lawyers participate in these platforms or not? Can these types of services introduce lawyers to leads that will convert into valuable clients – or are they a waste of time that could even potentially put lawyers at ethics risk or loss of a bigger client?

Frankly, it’s hard to say. The idea of taking on loss-leader work isn’t new; lawyers have long offered low-cost services through bar referral services and employer-sponsored pre-paid legal plans – often with favorable results. The theory is that you establish a relationship for a low cost, and the client may return for help when larger matters arise. On the other hand, most lawyers’ experience with internet-based leads, at least in the early days, left much to be desired – with calls from crazies whose case had already been rejected by every lawyer in town.

But that’s what’s changed. As the Internet matures, it’s no longer a source of last resort but rather, the first stop for many people seeking legal services who actually have money to spend.  Many haven’t asked friends for referrals because, let’s face it – people often don’t want to share their legal problems with colleagues. Also, sometimes (as has happened with me when it comes to referrals), people may have very different price sensitivities from friends. There’s nothing more awkward than receiving a list of estate planning lawyers who start a $10k for a trust when you were looking for someone at half the price. On the Internet, folks can search for lawyers from the privacy of their home without having to share their legal problems or financial limitations with friends and colleagues.

So whereas as recently as two or three years ago, it was easy to shrug off the Internet as a potential source of solidly priced work, that’s no longer the case. 

Still, even though decent clients may be seeking out sites like Avvo or Law Dingo, that doesn’t necessarily mean that lawyers ought to sign up. In many ways, the the pros and cons of lawyer participation in an online platform are similar to those for crafters who determining whether To Etsy or Not to Etsy (Inc Magazine):

 —Etsy offers participants more exposure which may lead to  “breakthrough opportunities.” exposure comes at a price, to the tune of a 3.5 percent commission on sales for Etsy and potentially up to ten percent commission per sale on eBay.

—On Etsy, a brand can get lost in the market place in the marketplace – but it can also be difficult to establish a brand independently without significant resources.

But there’s also a difference between Etsy and some of the lawyer sites. As the article describes, “Etsy shoppers care” – when they come to Etsy, they are seeking the appeal of a unique handcrafted goods and appreciate the value. Etsy has done much to cultivate that impression. Etsy has also established a community for sellers where they can exchange ideas and get to know each other in person. In short, Etsy offers participants a distinct value add that it’s not yet clear the platforms provide to lawyers.

Bottom line – these are transitory and fluid times with lots of opportunity. Lawyers can participate in some of these platforms – or perhaps team up with a couple of colleagues to create a “dial in” line or online clinic that could also function as a conduit for clients. For now, I don’t know what the right answer is when it comes to platforms and your practice except for one: don’t ignore them.