Lead generation just means finding potential potential clients. The criminal defense lawyer I worked for after law school subscribed to a daily list of people arrested the night before, and sent a mass mailing to everyone charged with a DUI or worse. That subscription, offered by the sheriff’s office, I think, was lead generation.

When the internet took off, some people realized it wasn’t that hard to attract people looking for a lawyer or answers to a legal question online. All you have to do is get them to a contact form, then sell their inquiry to lawyers. There are a lot of people doing the same thing, now. Some are legit, but many are not.

Enter LegalForce, an online trademark-registering service that is opening a bookstore in Palo Alto, CA, called BookFlip in order to generate leads for lawyers.

According to PandoDaily,

The idea is to build a community of people who will engage in legal advice in a new way, he says. The bookstore sells law and general titles, and sells tablets as well. Visitors can read books or take a class. Example courses: Pinterest for seniors, Starting Your Business on Esty, and How to File a Patent.

BookFlip sounds a lot like LegalGrind, actually, only with books instead of coffee. The books, you see, are just bait.

This is all a lure to get visitors into the area of the store where lawyers work on call, waiting for walk-ins and charging $45 per 15 minutes.

In other words, BookFlip is basically a brick-and-mortar lead-generation service. That’s basically what LegalGrind does, too. Attorneys agree to staff the store in exchange for a share of the fee, and they can presumably take the referral, if the client needs help beyond the initial consultation.

Now, $180 an hour isn’t actually all that low-priced for a lawyer just starting out — which is, I assume, the kind of lawyer who would do something like this. But charging in $45 chunks makes it feel inexpensive to the customer.

So, assuming this is a kosher fee-sharing arrangement,

Is this a good deal for the lawyers?

LegalForce’s president, Raj Abhyanker, admits that most customers who come in will not be looking for a lawyer. BookFlip is bookstore first, and not necessarily a legal bookstore. That means you might hang out all day for just a couple of clients. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind spending all hanging out here:

But what kind of clients could you expect to get? It’s hard to know, but the idea that there are a critical mass of potential clients out there who need a lawyer but aren’t actively looking for one and will pony up a substantial legal fee at the first opportunity in an unusual location seems suspect to me. If these clients are as mythical as they sound to me, the alternative is relying on back-to-back 15-minute consultations, probably a couple of days a week or less, for a living. Assuming BookFlip can generate that kind of traffic, of course.

So I am skeptical, but if I were in Palo Alto, I would probably sign up just to see. The downside is just losing a day or two of productivity, which I do with some regularity, anyway. And hey, it could result in some real money, or even a few referrals.

Is this a good deal for clients?

That all depends on the competence of the lawyers who participate. I suspect the lawyers who want to do this will be mostly inexperienced and fairly new to law practice. It just doesn’t feel like something I would do if I already had a healthy book of business.

Which brings up all the obvious problems — and then some — that come with barely-competent lawyers advising people on their legal issues.

People who sign up for 15-minute consultations will probably have all kinds of legal problems. Will lawyers back out of a consultation if a question comes in an area of law in which they have little or no experience (assuming they have any experience at all)? Speaking of which, how will lawyers with little or not actual experience even begin to give competent advice?

In order to be successful, BookFlip will have to build a reputation as a place where consumers can get good legal advice, not just cheap legal services. Presumably, Abhyanker knows this, although his trademarks-for-cheap online business makes me think he probably views legal services as a commodity, rather than an important (and legally-significant) relationship between an attorney and a client.

In the end, the quality of legal services will be the reason for BookFlip’s success or failure as well as the factor that determines whether it is a good investment of time for the attorneys involved. If I am wrong about BookFlip’s ability to attract competent lawyers to its business model, it stands a chance. If not — if the only lawyers who participate are inexperienced lawyers who aren’t capable of giving competent advice — I hope it fails for its customers’ sake.