With the influx of capital into the legal industry, we’re seeing a number of lawyer-client matching sites.

The Wall Street Journal’s Jennifer Smith referencing Priori Legal, LegalReach, and UpCounsel reports on the potential of online matchmaking services that promise to connect clients with lawyers.

Small-business owners used to find lawyers largely by word-of-mouth. But that’s changing, as more people search for legal help online, says Jeffrey Van Winkle, a lawyer and chair-elect of the National Small Business Association’s board of trustees. The new services propose to simplify that hunt—while tapping into what they say is a potentially lucrative market. Small and midsize businesses spend an estimated $100 billion a year on legal services, according to market research commissioned by UpCounsel.

Attorney–client matching is a subset of legal advertising that allows participating attorneys to be matched with potential clients seeking legal representation.

The sites allow users to submit their legal needs online by practice area and location. Law firms or lawyers that opt to use these services are then matched with clients by need and location. In some cases the lawyers bid on the matter.

Attorney Carolyn Elefant blogged this morning that a recent Indiana legal ethics opinion may kill legal innovation and startups. It turns out an Indiana lawyer was sanctioned for participating in the attorney-matching site, Law Tigers.

The Law Tigers website boasts “Exceptional Results: Settlements and Verdicts” and links to glowing client testimonials.

Because an average viewer could not differentiate the claimed exceptinal results and glowing testimonials on the site and those which may pertain to the lawyer, Indiana found the lawyer’s participation unethical.

This is going to kill legal startups? This is going to turn off venture capital’s investment in legal innovation of various sorts?

I’m not so sure.

Legal matchmaking sites are nothing new. I visited the Barksdale Group backed Respond.com back in 1999 looking for a potential revenue generating partner for my venture capital backed Prairielaw.com.

Respond.com was the leading online shopping service that connected buyers with sellers through email. Buyers could shop effectively for goods and services; sellers were introduced to customers ready to buy.

When Prairielaw.com was acquired by LexisNexis and integrated into Martindale-Hubbell’s Lawyers.com as its content and community Martindale began using Respond.com as a legal matching service which lawyers paid for.

Thomson Retuters’ FindLaw also had a legal matching service it called LegalConnection.com.

Digging deeper you can find any number of online legal matching services that have come and gone over the last fifteen years. Some run by folks with checkered pasts are still able to get lawyers to pay for their services.

Lawyers get their best work by relationships and word of mouth. Alawys have, always will. Before the Internet, and with the Internet.

True innovation builds on this concept. Innovation leverages technology  to nurture relationships and accelerate word of mouth.

Innovation does not dismiss reality and replace it with a money making opportunity that’s easy for investors to get their minds around.

Don’t get me wrong. There may be value in many legal matching services, whether private enterprises or facilitated by bar associations. Lower cost “commodity like” matters may be uniquely suited for such sites. I am also not questioning the people behind the services nor their intentions.

I just don’t see legal matching sites as innovative or the future.

I want a lawyer whom I trust. I want a lawyer who is willing to demonstrate their passion, expertise, and care in a real and authenticate way  – online where I can see it and feel it.

Blogging and other social media provide lawyers an opportunity to establish themselves as a trusted and reliable authority.

I am not talking of “content marketing” where the goal is content in any form pushed to as many places as possible to attract search results and traffic. I am talking of real engagment.

If we’re going to use technology and capital to connect consumers of legal services, let’s do it by empowering lawyers with passion for an area of the law to show it.

If we’re looking to help the consumers of legal services, let’s create solutions which enable people, whether a corporate executive, small business person, or consumer, to select a lawyer in an informed fashion.

Who do I trust? Who has the passion, care, and expertise to best represent me? Facilitate and lubricate the social engagement which enables me to determine this.

Let’s focus innovation and capital on relations and reputations. That’s the future.

Image courtesy of Flickr by funkandjazz