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How Consumers Choose Lawyers Remains a Mystery

August 24, 2020 (4 min read)

What’s the meaning of life? Where do artists get their ideas? What came first, the chicken or the egg?

They are eternal questions—mysteries of the universe that have long defied explanation. As technology advances and human knowledge expands, the questions eluding our grasp are becoming fewer and fewer. But in the legal profession, at least one persists:

How do everyday people actually choose their lawyers?

There’s a lot riding on that particular mystery. In 2018, the global market for legal services topped $790 billion, and is expected to scrape the $1 trillion mark imminently. Large firms handled 40 percent of that work, much of it presumably for large businesses. But individual consumers need legal services too. Back in 2015, Bill Henderson, the influential legal professor at Indiana University, pegged the size of the U.S. legal market driven by individual demand at $75 billion.

The person who understands how those individuals chose their attorneys has some pretty valuable knowledge. It’s not surprising then, that many have tried to suss out the answers. Through their efforts, we know enough to make some broad generalizations about how consumer select attorneys. But a review of recent studies suggests that definite answers remain difficult to come by.

One Point of Agreement

Finding the right lawyer can be a daunting process for a consumer, and there’s no shortage of people telling them how to go about the task. As it turns out, most of these people agree on the broad strokes of the ideal attorney search.

Many recommend a two-step process: (1) asking people you trust for recommendations, and (2) vetting those recommendations through Google searches, the lawyer’s website, and other online research. 

Trusted sources of recommendations could be friends, relatives or business associates. With suggestions in hand, the vetting process can begin. The ABA suggests consulting local bar associations’ online lawyer directories, lawyer referral services, and online databases. Of course, consumers can always go the old-fashioned route: picking up a telephone and asking the attorney a few questions about their background and qualifications.

A Simple Question that Resists Answers

You might think that the subjective question of how individuals should choose attorneys would generate more disagreement than the objective question of how they actually do it. But the reverse seems to be true. There is wide agreement on the former, and maybe more surprisingly, little consensus the latter.

In recent years, any number of organizations have tried to find out how consumers pick attorneys—mostly through surveys. And to be sure, there are some consistent conclusions. Generally speaking, as recommended, consumers do rely on referrals and online searches. Both activities rank highly in many studies. They are the top two results in a 2019 study by the digital marketing agency Market My Market, for instance. (A separate study with the same general result found, interestingly, that young people and those making more than $150,000 per year relied more on online searches than referrals.) Another consistent finding is the fact that social media platforms play a small role in the selection of attorneys. In one 2020 study, just two percent of consumers said that Facebook® would be their primary source in an online search for an attorney.

But the closer one looks, the less certain the findings become. Take the importance of online reviews. While that specific factor rates low in some studies, it sits at the top of others. One survey asked consumers to consider a hypothetical situation in which they had been involved in a car accident that wasn’t their fault, and were trying to find a personal injury lawyer. Among that group, 98 percent said that they would research online reviews of any lawyer before hiring them.

The results of these studies quickly make one wonder whether we can rely on the responses—and whether they are even asking the right questions. Only rarely, for instance, do surveys even give respondents the option of identifying advertising as an influence on their decision making. At the same time, in 2018 trial lawyers spent nearly a quarter of a billion dollars on local broadcast advertising in a single three-month period, running more than three million ads in that timeframe. With numbers like that, advertising must be having some impact.

Meanwhile, logic tells us that a raft of different factors can influence how consumers choose attorneys. In one study, more than three-quarters of consumers said a law firm’s rate structure and its years of experience would impact their decision. More than half said that the firm’s results in similar cases would make a difference. (It also confirmed that the social media activity of a firm didn’t matter much at all. That ranked last on a list of twelve factors.) Also, plenty of factors that have no relation to the law at all are going to come into play. According to that same study, 34 percent of consumers wouldn’t consider traveling more than 15 miles to a lawyer’s office.

Ultimately, the factors that go into choosing an attorney may be too complex to quantify, if they can even be identified at all. Even the best-intentioned consumer may have a hard time understanding their own decision-making process. If so, it’s a loss for attorneys that want the ultimate marketing secret.

Then again, it’s nice to think that there’s a little bit of unknowable magic in the formation of the attorney-client relationship.