One thing Fox Rothschild family law partner Eric S. Solotoff has learned in the five years his practice group has run a blog is that clients are looking for lawyers in less traditional ways.
So when Princeton, N.J.-based family law associate Eliana Baer pitched Solotoff on the idea of creating an app for the firm's New Jersey family law practice, he was receptive.
But Solotoff had no illusions that the iPhone-enabled app would cause the practice's client roster to swell.
Solotoff said the app has more to do with branding than directly generating new clients.
"If we got clients from it, that would be great, but I don't think that's the goal of [the app] in particular," Solotoff said. "As with the blog, we want people to know we are the go-to firm. We are knowledgable about the topic."
Solotoff said he didn't think the app, which launched in June, would be a direct marketing tool. He noted the firm didn't think that of the blog at first either, but the practice has had some success with the blog in terms of clients looking for lawyers in less traditional ways.
"Our firm is very big into social media and alternative forms of marketing and this is just, I think, the next step in what we have been doing with social media," Solotoff said of the app.
It took six months to build the app, which is centered on New Jersey family law. Solotoff said he has seen many law firm apps that are more akin to infomercials or that lack resources and content. He wanted Fox Rothschild's first foray into the app world to be different. He wanted something that was informative but accessible in app format. The end result is the New Jersey Divorce app, which includes a searchable notes section, a finance tracker that guides users through gathering necessary information, an asset identifier that helps users identify hidden or forgotten assets and information on divorce-related topics.
As with Fox Rothschild's website and blog, there is a disclaimer on the app to assure users the information is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. The target audience, Solotoff said, is both current clients and individuals contemplating divorce.
Micah Buchdahl, owner of marketing company HTMLawyers, said there are more law firm apps on the market than people may realize. But that doesn't mean they are all effective, he said.
"The reality is that most of these apps that the law firms have developed have very small usage and really it's just about saying that you have one," Buchdahl said. "There are very few clients that are going to download a law firm app and find it to be a real value."
Buchdahl said firms will say they want an app, but when pushed a little deeper, it turns out they really want a mobile-optimized website or the ability to show clients the firm is using technology creatively. If that's the case, Buchdahl said he will try to push those firms into doing an e-book instead because they are cheaper and easier to do.
If a firm does create an app, the best bet is to be practice-area specific, Buchdahl said. They are almost always free to download and are typically created for either the iPhone, iPad, Android or all of the above. Buchdahl said the apps have come down in price and can cost between $5,000 and $25,000 to create, depending on the app's sophistication.
"The app is just the next online marketing tool," Buchdahl said.
There are ways to tailor a firm's use of an app.
In some cases, firms have created apps and told only their existing client base about them, offering them as a value-added service, Buchdahl said. In other instances, firms give their biggest clients iPads with their app pre-downloaded on them, he said. If an app is going to have any long-term value, Buchdahl said, it will have to be updated. That is particularly the case with apps that track developments in a certain area of law, he said.
Not all law firm apps have been designed around specific practice-area content. Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff created an app in 2011 geared toward law school students and lateral attorneys in the market for a job. The app includes a listing of the firm's on-campus recruiting schedule.
Fox Rothschild is far from the first firm to enter the world of law firm apps. And it won't be the last. Earlier this month, West Virginia-based Spilman Thomas & Battle, which has an office in Pittsburgh, launched its human-resources-focused app, titled SuperVision.
The app, which was designed by Pittsburgh-based Quest Fore, is designed to help corporate executives, general counsel and human resources professionals with the most frequent questions encountered by the Spilman Thomas labor and employment attorneys. Users follow a "decision tree" to answer questions about common employment scenarios, such as a social media issue or layoff.
Eric Kinder, one of the leaders in Spilman Thomas' labor and employment practice, said the goal is to give quick answers to people who need them in a very limited amount of time. Those who need more detailed information could then call the law firm, he said.
Kinder said he viewed the app, a continuation of the firm's SuperVision newsletter and seminars, as a value-add for clients and potential clients. The project took about 10 months from start to completion. R.L. "Skip" Lineberg Jr., chief innovation officer at Spilman Thomas, said the firm brought in some clients for focus groups to get their input on how the app could be more useful. One thing the firm learned from those discussions, he said, was that there needed to be a desktop version of the app because not everyone using it would be on a mobile device. The firm followed that advice.
This is the first app Spilman Thomas has done and there is interest in creating others, but only if the situation is right.
"This is not a mobile website or newsletter packaged in app clothing," Lineberg said. "It's really a tool that solves a specific problem."
Additional apps would only be appropriate if they addressed a specific issue that wasn't too fact-intensive and lent itself to the "decision tree" model, Lineberg and Kinder said.
As Legal affiliate The Recorder reported in May, many early mobile apps were little more than law firm brochures. But Big Law is getting more sophisticated, law firm consultant Kent Zimmermann told The Recorder. He said he is seeing more firms developing apps that provide content and services to current or prospective clients.
"It sends a message to the market that this isn't your grandfather's law firm anymore," he had said.