Today’s legal consumer is price-wary and has access to an unlimited amount information via the internet when searching for an appropriate lawyer or law firm. Consumer behaviour experts and organisations related to the profession say prospective clients (or consumers), see a lawyer as an expert in anything legal and are generally flummoxed by legal jargon on law firm websites. LawTalk looks at how law firms can boost their bottom line by helping the consumer in their search for a legal remedy.
Make it easy for consumers to find you
Lay people tend to think in categories and probably don’t know what their legal issue actually is, University of Waikato consumer decision-making expert Rouxelle de Villiers says.
Dr de Villiers says drawing from her experience as a business mentor and knowledge of financial services, some general assumptions can be made about how people go about finding a lawyer.
She says when people look for a professional service (or knowledge products in “marketing speak”), people tend to take similar approaches.
“They’re far more inclined to look for a trusted source; maybe a financial advisor or someone on a committee. They will look for someone they feel would have the credentials to answer a particular question,” Dr de Villiers says.
An initial search would usually entail engaging with someone who they know have used a legal advisor in the past.
“They look to their inner circle of people of whom they trust. They would also then look more widely to people whom they feel will have relevant knowledge to advise or direct them.”
A lay person would ask another professional service provider about who they would normally deal with if they had a legal question.
“Customers normally refer to ‘top-of-mind experts’ that would have one or two degrees of separation. And with kiwis in particular being highly connected in the world – people do go online and search,” Dr de Villiers says.
The problem with online searches is that people need to know good key words to use in order to find relevant information.
How can law firms’ websites help prospective clients?
“Once customers have a list of prospective service providers, there aren’t many ways for them to assess the credentials, authority or expertise of the services they find,” Dr de Villiers says.
Based on her knowledge of South African and New Zealand customers, Dr de Villiers believes people would try to find an authority that has given a law firm’s claims some “teeth or credential”.
“So they look for an authority that gives it a kind of stamp of approval. It could be an association they belong to; it’s a stamp of approval that the customer can believe.”
Here’s the million dollar question: what are people actually typing into a Google search? There is no statistical evidence in New Zealand, but Dr de Villiers says that anecdotally it is most likely that they plug in a specific legal issue.
“Unfortunately, as lay people, we don’t quite know what the problem is … Consumers in general like to simplify things so they do think in categories.”
Dr de Villiers says law firms’ websites should get away from legal jargon and acronyms and make prospective clients (customers) believe in the claims that they’re making.
“These days customers do spend more time online because they can access information so quickly … so make your value offering clear to prospective clients by using plain English.
“There’s so much information in the world and so many areas that we all need to know something about. The simpler you can keep things and the faster you can help your customer make a decision in your favour, the better,” Dr de Villiers says.
People are Googling their legal problems
The Community Law website gets over one and a half million hits per year, says Community Law Centres o Aotearoa (CLCA) chief executive Liz Tennet.
“For us to get 1.5 million hits a year is phenomenal. The people who use our website are from all socio-economic groups across New Zealand society.
“It’s a very interesting issue. A lot of people think a lawyer is someone who deals only in criminal matters – which is all they see on a lot of TV programmes,” Ms Tennet says, adding that this can be quite a hurdle for those seeking to solve their legal problem.
The most searched area of law on the website is family law, followed by employment, consumer and debt issues, tenancy problems and criminal matters.
“What we’re finding is that with the increased use of the internet – and this is something that community law is responding to – that a lot of people particularly young people (under 25 years of age), they Google their problem.”
Ms Tennet says this demographic will search, for example, “caught speeding” or “being kicked out of my flat”, not really knowing where to go for advice.
Community Law believes its website is a key tool to providing access to justice and is refreshing it to make it easier for people – particularly under 25s – to find the appropriate course of action.
“It [searching on Google] is a growing trend and that’s why we’re restructuring our website which we will be launching later this month to capture that requirement for people to make contact.”
The refreshed website is a result of a survey of young people who said they wanted more plain English on legal websites.
“We’ve worked with our YouthLaw Aotearoa community law centre on this issue so that we’re more accessible … For our next round we’re looking at making our website more accessible to different groups, such as Māori, Pacific Islanders and people with disabilities.
“A lot of people need information about their problem but they do not necessarily need to go to a lawyer, as they can sort it out themselves. But for them to know what their legal rights are in a particular situation, that’s very powerful for them.”
Ms Tennet says the internet is a very powerful tool for lawyers to reach out to the community and that if they’re to make full use of it, they need to have their websites structured in a way where they can guide clients to the appropriate person quickly.
“For lawyers to market their services, they need to be more proficient at using their website,” she says.
What are consumers’ attitudes to websites and what are they looking for? LawTalk searched in vain for New Zealand research into these questions.
We did find some overseas research, however. One study was conducted by BrightLocal, which specialises in providing reports of online services to businesses.
BrightLocal surveyed over 3,000 customers based in the United States and Canada. It findings included: