Dear Abby, Should I Participate in Online Legal Advice Forums?
For many lawyers, participating in online legal advice forums counters their most fundamental instincts. The barriers to entry for these sites tend to be extremely low. Attorneys who respond rarely, if ever, have to provide proof of knowledge or peer recognition. Complicated legal issues are reduced to pat questions and answers. The informed counsel that provides their livelihood can appear cheapened by the notion that free, instantaneous legal advice is just a click away. Lawyers could inadvertently wander into gray areas about what establishes an attorney-client relationship.
Yet in a survey by The Research Intelligence Group (TRiG), about one-third of respondents claimed to use online legal advice forums when gathering information about their potential case. So opportunity exists for law firms to establish relationships with prospects early in their selection process on sites such as Ask a Lawyer on Lawyers.comSM or Avvo.
When choosing whether to participate in these types of online interactions, you should focus on two objectives: building prospect relationships where possible and enhancing an online reputation in your targeted practice areas. Every opportunity to participate, and expend valuable time and resources, should further at least one of these two objectives.
Any marketer knows that great advantage lies in reaching a prospect early. The TRiG survey shows that you can make these connections through online legal advice forums. However, you should take care to target prospects who have a reasonable chance to grow the business, rather than focusing on some artificial "score."
Providing a short, smart response to someone from outside your geographic range can help you impress someone in your region who might have the same question. However, you shouldn't go too far afield. Your responses should be related to your areas of practice and should mirror what you would tell a friend who asked for some quick advice at a party. If it's an area where you would plead ignorance or refer them to someone else, take a pass.
You must also provide helpful information without prematurely establishing an attorney-client relationship. In 2012, the American Bar Association updated its Model Rules to clarify that attorney-client relationships can be established even if the only communication is online. Most of the major legal advice forums include a disclaimer stating that the conversations, by themselves, do not trigger an attorney-client relationship. The Model Rule states that such clear disclaimers are sufficient, but when answering online queries, you should explicitly state your role and obligations at all times.
Participating in online legal advice forums should be a balancing act, and you should always weigh whether participating could pay off. If you aren't sure, contact a LexisNexis Law Firm Marketing Specialist or call 866-799-3717 to learn more about finding ROI from online legal advice forums.
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