Attorney–client matching (ACM), which has sometimes been referred to as online legal matching, is a subset of legal advertising that allows participating attorneys to be matched with potential clients seeking legal representation. ACM websites allow users to submit their legal needs online by practice area and location. Law firms or lawyers that opt to use these services are then matched with clients by need and location.
In 1908, the American Bar Association ("ABA") established its first ethics code, known as the Canons of Professional Ethics, which condemned all advertisement and solicitation by lawyers. Due to the progression of the legal profession and the desire to update the Canons of Professional Ethics, the ABA created the Model Code of Professional Responsibility ("Model Code") in 1969. The Model Code was an effort by the ABA to create practical rules that went "beyond the pretty details of form and manners" and addressed "the chained relationship of the lawyer to his clients, to his professional brethren and to the public."
In 1977, the United States Supreme Court, in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, ruled that lawyer advertising is partially protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court rejected the argument by the Arizona Bar that attorney advertising was "inherently misleading" and "tarnish the dignified public image of the profession." The Court found "the postulated connection between advertising and the erosion of true professionalism to be severely strained," and noted that "lack of legal advertising could be viewed as the profession's failure to 'reach out and serve the community.'"
With the internet boom in the 1990s, many consumers turned to the web to search for goods and services. Before the boom, in many instances consumers would rely upon the Yellow Pages and referral services to find an attorney. Given that consumer habits changed and working within the regulations of the Bates v. Arizona State Bar outcome, lawyers and law firms also changed their habits of presenting their services to consumers online. A research study released in 2012, shows that 76 percent of adult consumers looking for a lawyer used online resources at some point during the search process. Two key categories currently define online legal advertising: online legal directories and attorney–client matching services.
Attorney–client matching services
Attorney–client matching provides lawyers with the opportunity to increase exposure and reach their audience online. Companies like San Francisco, CA-based LegalMatch, Sharktank, Rocket Lawyer, and LegalOpinion (Sharktank and LegalOpinion are now defunct) were the first to provide the attorney–client matching as a service.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) responded to the Supreme Court of Alabama's June 26, 2002 invitation to comment on the Alabama Rules of Professional Conduct entitled Information about Legal Services. In this response, the FTC "encourages competition in the licensed professions, including the legal profession, to the maximum extent compatible with other state and federal goals." Additionally, on May 26, 2006, the FTC commented on the State Bar of Texas Professional Ethics Committee's consideration on whether or not it is ethical for a Texas attorney to participate in an online legal matching service. The FTC determined that "online legal matching services are a valuable option for Texans: they are likely to reduce the consumers' cost for finding legal representation and have the potential to increase completion among attorneys."
An increasing number of people are turning to the internet to search for legal services and are relying on phone books and offline media less and less. According to Reuters, over 9 million consumers will search online for legal services each month. Attorney–client matching services provide both clients and attorneys with information about each other before they actually speak, which intends to save time for both parties and them to make better decisions.
Attorney–client matching websites charge attorneys membership fees to participate in the service. Users of ACM websites complete confidential, form-based submissions for free, and the attorneys receive their information. Some services allow the attorneys to choose the cases while others allow the client to select the best attorney for their issue.
"... it's a prostitution of the legal profession ... it leads to lawyers fighting to undercut each other."
"One concern about such services relates to client confidentiality. Normally, when you hire a lawyer and tell him/her your story, the lawyer is bound by rules of ethics and the courts to keep that information absolutely confidential. But you lose your confidentiality if you share the information ..."
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