It's rough enough when your business is facing a legal problem that needs attention right away. What makes it far worse is having no idea where to turn for legal advice from someone who knows small-business law.
That's why San Francisco attorney Dmitry Shubov, 31, founded LegalMatch, a Web site that lets consumers and entrepreneurs shop online for lawyers willing and able to help with their particular problems. Founded in 1999, with its Web site launched in 2000, LegalMatch is far more precise than just asking around or, worse, flipping through the Yellow Pages. It goes several steps beyond the referral services offered by state and local bar associations, which typically listen to the client's problem and suggest one to three lawyers in the broad practice area-whomever's next in the rotation.
To use the site, you fill out forms describing your legal problem, providing information you'd normally cover in an initial consultation. The information is posted anonymously for review by subscribing attorneys in your locale. Interested attorneys then bid on the work, providing a profile that describes their educational backgrounds, experience, references and the fees they'd charge. This allows side-by-side comparisons without you having to visit half a dozen law firms. It's free of charge for clients, unless you want to pay for priority service.
Shubov stresses that business owners need to establish a relationship with a lawyer for help with business formation, contracts and all manner of legal questions that might arise. Far too many entrepreneurs just don't get around to it. "It's money, and it's a hassle," he says. "We empower the client to go through the search process."
LegalMatch screens attorneys not only by ensuring their good standing with their state's bar association, but also by evaluating their profiles and conducting a subjective interview. Potential attorneys are required to provide references, and, as on eBay, you can read other clients' ratings of each attorney's performance, plus the lawyer's comments on those ratings. For common legal matters, there are classified ads for flat-fee legal services, also with lawyer profiles and client ratings.
It's an idea whose time has come, says the Utah State Bar's Toby Brown. The organization is replacing its lawyer referral service with LegalMatch-a move that Brown contends will streamline the process for both attorneys and clients and give both sides more information upfront than they've had before.
"We're not wasting anyone's time by going over the same information," Brown says. "A lawyer doesn't have to spend an hour with a client to say 'I'm not the right lawyer for you.'"
Critics worry about the issue of attorneys paying middlemen for referrals-a practice many bar associations have prohibited. Others fault the company for refusing to disclose the names of its lawyers.
Despite these concerns, LegalMatch brought in $10 million in 2003, double its 2002 earnings, and the company expects to double its sales again in 2004.
Jane Easter Bahls is a writer in Rock Island, Illinois, specializing in business and legal topics.