Columbus Explores Online Social Marketing for Lawyers

Update: The State Bar of Texas recently rolled out its new site design and user experience. The site’s architecture cleanly and evenhandedly reflects the duality that all bar associations face: providing optimal value and utility to both members and the public.

(Originally posted 4/23/2010) In yesterday’s post about online social networking and word-of-mouth marketing for lawyers, I commented that bar associations were likely to leverage their credibility and experience to create innovative services for members and the general public.

John Sirman at the State Bar of Texas kindly directed me to the Columbus (Ohio) Bar Association’s ColumbusLawyerFinder.com site, which was created to provide a reliable online source of local lawyers and Ohio legal information.

I spent some time on the site last night and this morning, and found it to be a very good user experience. If cultivated and publicized properly, it could develop into a formidable marketing platform. It has a lot going for it.

Easy to use: There are just two large tabs across the top of the home page: “Find an Attorney,” which sorts and searches by various criteria, and “Legal Tool Kit,” which offers printer-friendly lists, questions, links, and information about legal issues. Each tab has the same 15 practice categories in the dropdown menu (e.g. “D.U.I./Criminal and Traffic Defense,” “Small Business Law and Litigation,” “Family Law, Divorce, Support and Custody”), so one click gets you to directly to the page you need.

The attorney profiles are standard “tombstone” fare, but they include a nice personalizing touch through the Q&A format “Get to know me” tab. Lawyers can add color and context to their profiles by including answers to questions like:

  • Why did you decide to become an attorney?
  • What experiences (work and personal) help you to be a better attorney?
  • What makes your law firm unique?
  • Describe your ideal client.
  • What made you choose your primary area of law?
  • Describe your personal interests and hobbies.

“Business casual” look/feel: It’s clearly a professional site, but the Twitteresque appearance — the bird image, the “mod” rounded sans-serif type in loose blocks against a white background — helps makes the serious content feel accessible and not intimidating.

Local: No one wants to have to drill down through a national — or even state — search menu to find a local attorney.

Trustworthy: Come on, it’s the bar association. Even the most brazen hucksters and charlatans likely would not try to screw around with the bar. A link on the home page takes you directly to the criteria used to screen participating attorneys

To be listed on Columbus Lawyer Finder, attorneys must meet high standards:

  • They must be in good standing with the Ohio Supreme Court and be free of any pending disciplinary investigations or proceedings.
  • They must alert the Columbus Bar Association if they are notified that they become the subject of a professional investigation at any time in the future.
  • They must be approved by the Columbus Bar Board of Governors.
  • They must be a Columbus Bar Member.
  • They must carry at least $100,000 in professional liability insurance for all areas but Injury and Accidents which must carry at least $500,000.
  • They must agree to use and provide a written fee agreement to every client.
  • They must agree to participate in fee arbitration with a client if necessary.
  • They must show a personal commitment to professionalism and sign the nine “Commitments to Clients.”

Those commitments are:

  1. To treat clients with respect and courtesy.
  2. To handle their legal matters competently and diligently, in accordance with the highest standards of the profession.
  3. To charge a reasonable fee and to explain in advance how that fee will be computed and billed.
  4. To return phone calls promptly.
  5. To keep clients informed and provide them with copies of important papers.
  6. To respect my clients’ decisions on the objectives to be pursued in their case, as permitted by law and the rules of professional conduct, including whether or not to settle their case.
  7. To work with other participants in the legal system to make our legal system more accessible and responsive.
  8. To preserve the clients’ confidences learned during our lawyer-client relationship.
  9. To exhibit the highest degree of ethical conduct in accordance with the Code of Professional Responsibility.

The biggest drawback, of course, is the lack of user-generated content like ratings and reviews. Some moderated conversations for the general topic would be interesting, too.

I wish them good luck, and I look forward to seeing how the platform evolves in Columbus — and is emulated elsewhere.

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