This article focuses on the consumer data referenced in our research report: 7 Best Practices for Attorneys Adapting to COVID-19.
How are clients and those looking to hire an attorney behaving since the COVID-19 pandemic?
In late April and early May, we surveyed approximately 2,400 visitors to several Nolo network sites, including AllLaw.com, CriminalDefenseLawyer.com, DrivingLaws.org, EmploymentLawFirms.com, and DivorceNet.com. We wanted to get a sense of how consumer behavior has (and hasn’t) changed since the COVID-19 pandemic began and how consumers are thinking about the future and their legal needs.
Financial worries are a top concern, but not for everyone
One consumer concern that was consistent across the survey, was affordability during the pandemic. Being able to afford a lawyer due to financial setbacks was cited as a concern by 25 percent of all respondents, whose legal issues included bankruptcy, immigration, criminal matters, personal injury, and divorce. Those who had employment issues cited affordability most (34%), followed by those with bankruptcy and divorce issues (33% and 30%, respectively).
To keep financial concerns in perspective—particularly at a time of record-high unemployment—it might surprise you that when asked whether they were holding off on hiring an attorney due to the pandemic, 54 percent said they were not. Only 18 percent responded that COVID-19 was causing them to delay retaining a lawyer. Furthermore, half of respondents (52%) said they had no concerns of any kind about hiring a lawyer during the pandemic. (Results total more than 100% because respondents could choose more than one answer.)
Safety and other top concerns
Of the 48 percent of respondents who had concerns about hiring a lawyer during the pandemic, 20 percent cited “meeting in person with a lawyer” as a concern, showing that a significant portion of your potential clientele worries about COVID-19-related safety. Respondents with personal injury concerns were somewhat less likely to be worried about meeting a lawyer in person (14% cited this concern) than the overall group. People with criminal defense or divorce issues were the least likely (at 6%) to be concerned with in-person meetings.
In a separate question, we asked how respondents would feel if they had to go to court or another government agency for their case. Safety concerns came up in this question as well, with 14 percent responding they would delay their case rather than go to court during the pandemic. A quarter of respondents would go reluctantly if important, and 30 percent would make an in-person appearance without hesitation.
Court closures or slowdowns may be one of your big concerns, especially if you practice in an area that is at least partly shut down. But for clients, they are not top of mind. Of those concerned about hiring a lawyer during the pandemic, only 25 percent had concerns about case delays related to COVID-19. Another 22 percent worried they wouldn’t be able to find a law practice that was open for business.
In the big picture, these concerns are small compared to the number of consumers worrying about affordability: 51 percent of those with concerns were worried about being able to afford an attorney due to financial setbacks.
Social distance hiring is possible… but not popular
In a separate question, we asked consumers if they would feel comfortable hiring a lawyer they had never met in person. More than half—56 percent—responded no. Still, nearly a quarter (24%) of respondents would work with an attorney they had never met in person if they had a video conference or phone call with the lawyer first. Only 11 percent responded that email or text communication could replace meeting an attorney face-to-face before hiring them.
Among different groups of clients by type of legal matter, those seeking a criminal defense lawyer had the greatest percentage of “no” responses (64%). More than half of divorce and employment law clients (54% of each group) responded they would not hire a lawyer they had never met in person. Still, nearly a third (30%) of family law clients would hire a lawyer they had met over video conference or phone, followed by 29 percent of personal injury clients and 28 percent of those seeking help in an immigration matter.
Secure communications a concern but manageable
The survey asked all respondents how they felt about communicating electronically with an attorney. Just over a third (38%) were a little or very concerned about the privacy of anything they would send their lawyer electronically (by email, text or an online portal). Another 41 percent had no concerns, and 21 percent weren’t sure.
We also asked respondents how they felt about the security of meeting with their attorney via video conference or phone rather than in person. About a third (32%) were comfortable communicating remotely, and another 22 percent would be if the lawyer had reliable/secure technology. About a quarter (27%) of all respondents were not comfortable discussing their case over the phone or video conference and another 19 percent weren’t sure.
More than half of legal consumers (53%) are comfortable signing documents electronically, but 29 percent were not. Another 19 percent were unsure of how they feel about electronic signatures.
Clients prefer attentive, quality conversation more than the type.
In both multiple-choice and open-ended survey questions, respondents seemed to value the quality of communication over the type of communication—in person or not. Concerns about not receiving close attention to their case due to the pandemic was selected by 17 percent of all respondents (or 35% of those who had pandemic-related concerns about hiring a lawyer).
Among respondents who already had an attorney, those who had positive experiences during the pandemic often cited good communication while those who had negative experiences said their lawyer had communicated poorly. Satisfied clients said their attorney “kept me informed” and “talked to me.”
It makes sense that during such a confusing time, when so many processes have been turned upside down, clients are eager for extra clarity about their options as they try to make their way through the months ahead.