Small Firms Look to Attract Middle Class With Flat Rates

May 11, 2016

For middle-income individuals and families, the Internet has made it significantly easier to find a lawyer for family or estate planning purposes. But for the small firms that offer these services, the Internet has created a more competitive market and a need to stand out.

While firms can use their own websites and search engine optimization to their advantage, potential clients are also better equipped to find the best deal on legal services. And they have services like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer available, which can take business from local general practitioners.

Law firm marketing consultant Micah Buchdahl said if he were a solo practitioner or small general practice, he might be concerned about the competition.

"It's a much more crowded playing field," Buchdahl said. "The question is if you live in Blue Bell, are you going to go out there and look for an attorney in Blue Bell … or are you just looking for the ­lowest cost option?"

Still, some attorneys see ample opportunity in serving middle-class clients.

Philadelphia firm Freiwald Law focuses primarily on litigation, and much of its work is done on a contingency fee basis. But over time, managing partner Aaron Freiwald said he began to notice that some clients could have used some help on transactional issues long before they came to him.

"I have had so many moments where I said, 'I wish this client had a will, or help with getting a family member into a skilled nursing center, or help preparing a trust,'" Freiwald said. "I've seen it first-hand what happens when some of these vital legal ­services aren't there."

People at the lowest end of the income scale can often get help on legal issues for free, he said, and high-income families can easily pay a lawyer at an hourly rate. But in the middle, he said, there was "a huge, underserved population."

So earlier this year, Freiwald Law kicked off a program that offers estate planning, health care planning and elder care planning services at flat rates. It's called Community Legal Advisors.

The website for Community Legal Advisors includes a link to a price list for these services.

"A lot of people think that getting a lawyer is just something they can't afford," Freiwald said. "A lot of people, for instance, probably don't have a will because they think it will be too expensive."

Freiwald's firm is not the first to do this. But, Freiwald says, it seems "novel" for a "true litigation firm" to expand into flat-rate estate and care planning.

"Once we're helping someone with a will, we're going to be that family's lawyer, so I think this is also a way that other practice areas [can grow] as well," Freiwald said.

Larry Lefkowitz, a solo practitioner based in Bucks County, has been bringing in family law and estate planning clients with flat rates for 25 years. Like Freiwald, he publishes those rates on his firm's website.

"I thought the way to stand out … is to charge people reasonable, flat rates for things and not charge people for the hours," Lefkowitz said. "More often than not, people want to get the services and they want to pay a reasonable amount, but they just can't find anybody."

Lefkowitz said he spends the most time and brings in the most revenue with family law matters. If a matter requires a special motion or petition, he will charge an extra amount aside from the flat fee, but he ­discusses that with the client first. For example, he said, if a divorce involves a custody issue, that would require a separate fee.

Lefkowitz said his business structure has not made him the most money possible. But he has been able to get enough volume to build and maintain a practice.

Making price lists easily accessible can help firms to compete with other services that market to middle-income clients, Buchdahl said, because a number of those clients are going to shop for the best price.

"I think when you're looking at these types of matters, the key is to generate volume, so you need to structure that in a way that generates volume," Buchdahl said.

However, he said, relying on search engines to get information to those potential clients can be time-consuming and expensive, he said.

Lefkowitz said he has struggled with getting the right attention from online searches. While his prices are affordable, he said, he doesn't want his services to come across as "cheap." Word of mouth is still important to his business, he said.

Freiwald, too, said he may not pursue an aggressive online strategy with Community Legal Advisors, but is reaching out to ­current and past clients and other lawyers.

Karen L. Hackman, managing member of RHP Law Group in central Pennsylvania, said her firm also charges flat rates for its estate planning services. A significant ­portion of the business, she said, comes from an in-person marketing approach.

For 15 years, Hackman said, her firm has held retail workshops for potential clients. All workshop participants get a free planning session, and receive a rate quote at the end of that meeting. Hackman said about 90 percent of participants come in for a meeting, and 75 percent convert to paying clients.

"It may be low-tech, but it's inexpensive," Hackman said. "Our rates won't get out of control because when we agree, that's it … that's our responsibility."

RHP Law Group has high Martindale-Hubbell ratings, and uses Avvo, Hackman said, but those websites bring in a small amount of the firm's business.

Likewise, Lefkowitz said he has tried marketing his services on Avvo, but it hasn't been overwhelmingly helpful.

Hackman said about 60 percent of her firm's clients come from workshops and the rest typically hear about the firm by word of mouth. She said this approach works in part because her firm serves a rural region—15 counties in the middle of the state.

By: Lizzy McLellan, The Legal Intelligencer

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