A few good lawsuits

I’ve glimpsed the future of legal marketing, but WhoCanISue.com isn’t it. A new website that has generated a remarkable amount of publicity for a concept that’s not exactly groundbreaking, WhoCanISue.com allows would-be litigants to share the basic outlines of their potential legal claim with an online system, without divulging confidential information. The site will then provide an assessment of whether the claim is meritorious, and if so, the user will be put directly in touch with a lawyer — the one who has bid the highest amount, on top of a $1,000 registration fee, to be at the top of the list of referrals for that particular case.

There are, perhaps needless to say, a lot of issues here. There’s the company’s name, designed to attract attention from the kind of people (familiar to many lawyers) carrying around a grievance in search of someone to compensate them for it. There’s the question of whether the assessment of the user’s situation, to decide if he has a case worth bringing, will be inclined to have an unusually low “Yes” threshold in order to encourage business. And there’s the fact that the site links the client with a lawyer not based on whether that lawyer really can best serve the client, but on whether she outbid her competitors in an auction for the #1 referral spot.

WhoCanISue.com tells us very little about how online legal marketing will develop. As I’ve said before, the success of future web-based initiatives is going to depend on the degree to which they encourage community and collaboration — a meeting of minds and interests online in an environment of mutual provision and gain that rewards reliability and trustworthiness. Until that sort of community fully develops, start by writing a good blog and posting testimonials from satisfied clients — you’ll get a solid marketing presence online, and for free.

Interestingly, though, I think there’s actually the germ of a good access-to-justice idea here, in terms of an online service that helps people determine if they have a case or not. You’d take the same basic template and have people submit enough details of their case to have its merits analyzed. But the analysis would be done by independent lawyers who wouldn’t be able to take on the case after offering their analysis of its merits, thereby removing the temptation for a lawyer who could derive business from the case to think there’s more to it than there actually is.

The lawyers offering these services could be volunteers, which would make it kind of a computerized version of the phone-in “Ask A Lawyer” programs provided by some state bars and law societies. But these programs tend to focus on answering legal questions and dispensing general advice rather than analyzing the merits of a specific case, which volunteer lawyers are loathe to do for both insurance and business-generation reasons. So I think it’d be better to staff this online system with salaried lawyers — perhaps through a legal aid or community service clinic.

Of course, the net result of a system like this would be the opposite of the WhoCanISue.com approach. That company wants to increase the number of lawsuits; this system could have the effect of reducing them. If potential litigants have a clearer picture of their chances of success at trial — and of the costs of getting there — you could end up with fewer frivolous suits jamming up the courts. And if it serves to reinforce in the public mind the idea that the court process is neither a cure-all for an unhappy life situation nor an outlet for frustration or vindictiveness, all the better.

You could even call the site DoIHaveACase.com. It’s not the future of legal marketing, but it might be one small pathway leading to a better justice system.


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