Allegheny County Bar Association creates consumer-friendly 'Pittsburgh Lawyer Finder' website


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Attorney Mark Vuono admits his firm's website isn't the least bit edgy.

The home page for Vuono & Gray is designed in distinguished shades of blue and gold with a picture of the scales of justice. Besides a standard summary of the firm's legal services, there are links to practice areas and attorney biographies.

There aren't even photos of the firm's six lawyers.

"We're very conservative and traditional," said Mr. Vuono, the firm's managing partner.

With solid name recognition after 61 years in existence, the firm has little reason to develop a flashy Internet presence to attract new clients.

At least one of its attorneys might get some increased attention, however, through Pittsburgh Lawyer Finder, a Web-based search system recently launched by the Allegheny County Bar Association to give the public another way to shop for legal help. [See pittsburghlawyerfinder.org.]

William Stewart, a 30-year-old associate with Vuono & Gray, is among the attorneys listed on Lawyer Finder. A click into his profile reveals a bit more about him than the bio on his own firm's website.

For starters, there's his photo. Another picture features the firm's soccer team in uniforms with the trophy they earned as champions of the bar association's soccer league. One team member holds a dog.

The text discloses that Mr. Stewart specializes in commercial and residential property reassessment cases -- a timely skill with the recent round of tax reassessments in Allegheny County. And under the "Get To Know Me" link, Mr. Stewart talks about how the senior attorneys at his firm have helped to mentor him; that he played varsity soccer as an undergraduate; and that he's a fan of Pittsburgh's professional and college sports teams.

If all those details make Mr. Stewart's entry on Lawyer Finder a lot more like a Facebook profile than what pops up on a typical attorney search, that's intentional.

Pittsburgh Lawyer Finder is "more amenable to a little bit more personal touch to give [the lawyers] exposure, to tell something about them besides being a lawyer," said Mr. Vuono, who is president-elect of the bar association and was involved with developing the search system locally.

He suggested that Mr. Stewart post on Pittsburgh Lawyer Finder because, "Our firm thought it would be helpful to the younger staff who need a little help with marketing. The established partners have business and rain-making techniques in place."

With the explosion of digital information, consumers increasingly want more control in finding the right attorney match or "navigating the law on their own," said Whitney Hughes, director of the bar association's lawyer referral who worked on the launch of the online system.

For decades, the Allegheny County Bar Association has operated a telephone-based lawyer referral system that handles between 75 and 150 inquiries daily, Ms. Hughes said.

Callers are matched to an attorney or legal services provider to whom they have access for 30 minutes to discuss their legal concerns. After the initial discussion, the caller decides whether to retain the lawyer or provider at a regular rate. Until recently, the service cost consumers $30, but when the bar introduced Lawyer Finder, it dropped the fee for phone referrals.

"We thought that we really needed to offer two alternatives for people to find legal help at no charge: one that would allow them to search on their own and one that had more personal assistance if they needed it," she said.

While trying to make available more information about attorneys on the phone referral system, the local bar association became aware of Lawyer Finder, which was developed five years ago by the Columbus Bar Association in Columbus, Ohio.

"It was very consumer friendly and had the imprimatur of the bar, so you know the attorneys are credible and the bar association stands behind it," Ms. Hughes said. "We wanted it as another alternative for people who are Internet savvy who want to take more of a hand in their search."

For its prototype, the Columbus bar conducted focus groups about lawyer search methods, said Marion Smithberger, lawyer referral service director for the Columbus Bar. What consumers wanted to know, he said, is, "Who is this person I'm about to make contact with?"

"They were looking for someone in our metropolitan area and for someone they could have a rapport with," Mr. Smithberger said.

So when Columbus area lawyers were recruited for the website, "We encouraged them to put up consumer-friendly photographs like with their dogs or wearing a Columbus Blue Jackets shirt or hat," he said. Visitors to the site are interested in attorneys who "have a family or are interested in Ohio State football."

The standard search on Lawyer Finder starts with legal specialties such as family law, immigration and visas, and workers' compensation. Once a visitor clicks on one of those areas, there is a list of lawyers who practice in those fields, their geographic locations and years of experience. By clicking on a name, users will access details about that attorney's education, career, case history and contact information.

While it's free for consumers to search, lawyers pay a fee of $150 a month, or $1,650 a year, to post their profiles on Lawyer Finder.

"The cost is not that steep if it's marketed effectively," said Lori Carpenter, a Downtown-based legal recruiter. "It's another avenue for lawyers who are primarily not in larger firms to be able to market their services."

While the bar association has approximately 6,600 members, the system is likely to attract only a fraction of them and is mainly targeted to those who handle consumer issues such as adoptions, personal bankruptcy, divorce, estates and traffic violations.

"You don't see mergers and acquisitions [lawyers] on there," Mr. Smithberger said.

Currently, 168 are signed on to Pittsburgh Lawyer Finder.

Columbus has about 250 lawyers on its system and has sold franchises for the system to Allegheny County and bar associations in Cincinnati; New Haven, Conn.; and Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas.

The Allegheny County Bar Association paid the Columbus Bar $15,000 to buy the system and adapt it locally and will pay monthly administrative and Web-hosting fees, Ms. Hughes said.

It's also investing in radio and television ads and a campaign on search engine Google to promote it, she said.

With the bar association doing the marketing, lawyers in small firms and practices will benefit most, Ms. Carpenter said.

"Frankly, it looks like the [Internet] is going to replace the Yellow Pages for how we look for lawyers."

legalnews

Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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