Live web chat software is one of the most popular bells that lawyers are adding to their websites.

And while live chat functionality might be an effective way to interact with potential clients that land on your site, there are some important economic and ethical issues to consider before adding live chat to your law firm website.

It’s no secret that internet consumers expect instant gratification and quick fixes. In this world where competitor websites are just a mouse click away, some lawyers are in a constant search for ways to grab the attention their users, and keep it for long enough to earn their business.

However, as you already know, providing legal services is different. Most legal issues can’t be quickly fixed. But that doesn’t stop legal services consumers from expecting instant gratification.

Now, you may conclude (as many experienced lawyers do) that you have zero interest in attracting potential clients, or continuing to provide service to existing clients that have these expectations.

On the other hand, depending on your practice area(s), intake infrastructure and a variety of other factors, you may conclude that this is the reality developing business in the zero moment of truth age.

Assuming that you are convinced that people are using the internet to research legal issues, get answers to legal questions and find legal services providers, and assuming that you’re interested in attracting and engaging these potential clients, you might consider using live chat on your law firm website. But before you do, here are some things you should think about.

What Is Live Chat?

In case you have no idea what live chat support is, here’s one definition:

Live support software (also called live chat, live help) is a popular term for online chat applications designed specifically to provide online assistance to users of a website.

While these applications take many forms, the gist is that users can click on something on a web page (image, link, etc) to request live assistance. Once assistance is requested, a chat window appears where users can engage in a discussion with someone from the website.

Live Chat Legal Ethics

In Should You Chat Live with Clients Online?, Gabriel Cheong shares his experience in which opposing counsel used a chat feature where clients (or non-clients) can simply chat with him, an assistant at the firm or an associate right over the website:

About a week into the litigation, my client told me that he actually looked into hiring his wife’s attorney and even spoke with their firm through the instant chat feature. Are we starting to see the problem here? By the time that the husband spoke with Attorney Bob through his law blog, Attorney Bob already was retained by the wife. Attorney Bob or his associate did a full intake right over the online system. That created a conflict and as soon as I heard this, I asked Attorney Bob to recuse himself from the case. He lost a client.

But was this situation solely the result of using live chat? It seems to me that a similar issue may have arisen had Gabriel’s client contacted his wife’s attorney via phone or email. The problem wasn’t necessarily the chat feature itself, but rather the process for identifying conflicts.

Of course, this is only one of many legal ethics problems that might arise communicating via live web chat. Issues related to exposing client confidences, misunderstandings about attorney-client relationships and a host of other legal ethics issues may come into play when communicating with clients and prospective clients through live chat features.

Live Chat As A Marketing Investment

In addition to ethics considerations, there are economics considerations to choosing live chat software. Some live chat software providers charge per live chat request. If your site receives a lot of visitors that are interested in using the live chat feature, you might end up with a pretty expensive chat bill.

Live chat software vendors will contend that the per inquiry fee is easily absorbed by the increase in potential client conversion. In other words, many more visitors to your website will inquire about hiring you than would have without the chat feature.

In my experience, the effectiveness of live chat varies wildly. While it is true that the chat function can increase engagement, depending upon your implementation, the quality of these inquiries is likely to be lower than those that occur by phone. Obviously, this is a generalization that won’t apply equally to all law firm websites.

Tips on Live Chat

If you’re currently using live chat on your law firm website, or in the process of considering adding it, here are a couple of questions to consider:

  • Who Answers Chat Requests? – A lawyer? An assistant? A virtual receptionist? There are ethical and effectiveness consequences of who actually answers the request. If it’s a secretary, paralegal or other assistant, make sure it’s clear to the person making the chat request. You should consider including language both on your site, as well as, during the chat discussion that makes it clear with whom the user is chatting.
  • How Are Chat Requests Answered? – This is especially important if you’re outsourcing chat functionality. What questions is the person who is fielding the chat asking? What answers are they permitted to provide? Are there clear guidelines about what can permissibly be discussed via chat? Is the person fielding chat requests good at typing in English?
  • How Are You Paying For Chat? – There are a variety of licensing fee arrangements for chat software. Some, like Livezilla, are free. However, you have to provide the chat agent. Others provide the software and the chat agent. Generally, these services charge by the number of chats that occur. If you’re using a pay-per-chat service, you had better have some benchmark numbers in place to measure whether live chat is actually increasing conversion or just stealing from other means of communication (like phone, email or form fills). If you’re seeing your phone calls from your website go down as your chat numbers increase, I would suggest that you might be paying a premium for inquiries that you would have received anyway.

Ultimately, live chat functionality can be a good way to communicate with both clients and potential clients. However, as with other means of communication, lawyers must be thoughtful about how they are communicating via live chat.

So, what are your experiences? Does your firm currently offer your website visitors the ability to chat with your firm? Have you run into any issues? Has it been an effective and efficient means of communication with clients and/or prospective clients?