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Make Money Monday: Paid Client Consults Without Avvo or the ABA

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 10.45.42 AM [Note: Minor changes to post as of 2/9, 1 pm] Both Avvo and the ABA have recognized the need for individuals and small business owners to get quick answers from lawyers. To this end, Avvo launched Avvo Advisors last year where a user can pay 39 bucks for a fifteen minute Q and A session with a lawyer, while the ABA teamed with Rocket Lawyer to create ABA Law Connect  where small businesses can have their questions answered for just $4.95 a pop. Right now, Avvo passes the full $39 fee from callers directly to the responding lawyers, and for this reason the Avvo program is currently oversubscribed. As for ABAConnect, it’s not clear whether participating lawyers are compensated at all (hard to divvy up that $4.95) – but the state bars want their share of the crumbs too, arguing that the ABA shouldn’t have jilted state referral programs to hook up with a new model .

Both the ABAConnect and AvvoAdvisor services expand access to law by giving consumers and small businesses a way to ask questions about the law, before they violate it.  Many consumers and small businesses often have fairly simply legal questions, as any lawyer knows from personal experience (how many times has a relative or stranger at a party, approached you by saying “You’re a lawyer, you should be able to help me…“) Yet despite the current glut of lawyers,there aren’t many options for help with simple or routine legal matters other than pre-paid legal plans (and those are usually purchased by companies for their employees rather than by individuals).

Think about it. Although some believe that a free consult is a good way to get questions answered on the cheap, most consumers (at least those you’d want as clients) are ashamed to schedule a free consultation with a lawyer without any intention of hiring them. On the other hand, those same consumers are reluctant to seek a paid consultation to ask a few questions — not so much because of cost, because it’s a cumbersome process (book a meeting, drive to the office, fill out intake). Moreover, most consumers assume that a paid “consultation” isn’t an appropriate forum for addressing simply legal problems since the term itself suggests that consumers will receive an evaluation rather than an answer. At the same time, full service representation seems like complete overkill.

On demand Q&A platforms like AvvoAdvisor and ABAConnect fill the gap between free consult and full service representation. In this regard, AvvoAdvisor and ABAConnect aren’t merely a discount version of an existing legal service, but a different category entirely.

Which raises the question: why should lawyers cede the market for on-demand solutions to platforms – whether sponsored by Avvo, the ABA or anyone else? The answer: they shouldn’t. Many lawyers simply don’t offer Q&A sessions because they entail too much complication (open the file, schedule the meeting, prepare and sign limited representation) for too little gain. But today, the same technology that supports non-lawyer owned Q&A platforms enables lawyers to automate scheduling of paid consultations – making it just as easy for lawyers to offer paid Q&A sessions through their own websites as it is on a platform. Below are just two of many options available:

Clarity : Clarity connects users — typically startups and entrepreneurs – by telephone with experienced mentors and experts in marketing, sales, branding and even law who dispense advice by the minute. At first blush, Clarity’s setup doesn’t seem all that different from Avvo or ABAConnect since the lawyer uses a third-party platform to engage clients. But there are key differences. First, while consumers seek out Avvo or Legal Zoom attorney assisted services for the brand, while the lawyers are fungible, users flock to Clarity to retain specific experts. Second, on Clarity, lawyers set the prices for their services, not the platform. Finally, lawyers needn’t rely on Clarity as a gatekeeper for contacts (as is true for Avvo or LZ). Instead, lawyers can add a Clarity widget directly to their web pages (see above) and clients can click through from the lawyer’s site to schedule a call.

There is one drawback to Clarity, however. The site collects a 15 percent cut of fees paid for the call which technically, constitutes fee-splitting. While the ABA has relaxed its ethics rules to permit both pay-for-click and pay-per-lead schemes such that the Clarity scheme would likely be acceptable, not all state bars will agree. So proceed with caution.

Acuity Scheduling : The Acuity Scheduling platform allows users to easily automate paid consultations or Q&A sessions directly from their website. The Acuity set-up is simple and intuitive: users are prompted to synch the Acuity calendar with the one they’re using and choose dates and times to make available for a paid consult. Next, users create the services you want to sell – perhaps a Q&A or strategy session or a traditional paid consultation by phone. There’s also a feature to create a list of questions that prospects must complete before the call – this gives lawyers a chance to check conflicts check, gain familiarity with the prospect’s case and transmit terms of representation. Once a payment option is selected, users can generate a link to include on their website.

I test drove Acuity by mocking up an ad below (I wasn’t crazy about the look of the calendar as an entry point) – you can click through to see how the calendar works in action:

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(By the way, the ad is real – feel free to go ahead and schedule a $39 consult with me!)

Acuity starts at $10/month, and the low-end version is probably suitable for most solos and smalls. With the explosion of practice management systems, you’d think that at least one of them would offer this kind of self-scheduling feature out of the box, but I’ve not found one that does.  And while it’s possible to cobble together a self-scheduled paid consult using LPM tools, Acuity simplifies the process.

By automating the consult process, Acuity eliminates many of transaction costs – and allows lawyers to capture money otherwise left on the table – for example, in those situations where it’s just easier to answer a caller’s question by phone than to open a new file.

What’s more, in contrast to ABAConnect and Avvo, lawyers keep full control with Acuity. I can charge my full hourly rate for a consult if I want, I can create coupons and gift certificates for my clients to pass on to friends. Best of all, I don’t have to worry about fee-splitting because I pocket the full amount. And a firm could even use Acuity to expand its scope of service – for example, by setting up after-hours or weekends consults, and assigning associates or part-time to take the calls and let them keep the revenue as a bonus or a supplement to their pay.

Technology is truly leveling the playing the field. Online platforms and directories and pay-per-click and referral services will always have a place – they’re too entrenched and deep pocketed not to. But let’s not forget that platform sites can’t function without lawyers, while with technologic advancements, we lawyers – and potential clients — can do just as well without third party platforms.

Make Money Mondays is a new feature of MyShingle (though we’re late to press with our inaugural version). Is this an idea that you would consider using in your practice? Let us know why or why not in the comment section below.