The 2021 Consumer Legal Needs Survey: What Attorneys Need to Know, Part I

Paper survey with pencil prominently placed showcasing multiple-choice questions

Original post from 2021. Updated on 9/1/2023.

For some years now, Thomson Reuters has conducted its annual Consumer Legal Needs Survey. It’s the industry’s most thorough and comprehensive look at how actual legal consumers behave online when they investigate whether they need legal representation. For this iteration, 2,000 U.S. adults over the age of 18 who had a legal need in the last 12 months were asked about their experience, from researching solutions to hiring a lawyer.

In this post we highlight the need-to-know portions of the survey. The second part of this series examines legal consumers’ decision factors and more. Then, we’ll examine the implications of some of these findings and how your firm should respond.

Here’s what you need to know:

Legal consumers take action quickly

Most consumers take action quickly (56% do so within one week) and are motivated by the awareness that they need skilled representation to avoid future problems.

  • What does this mean for me? There isn’t much room for error. Legal consumers want to find you quickly. Cutting through the noise of the internet and getting to a place where it’s easy for potential clients to find you isn’t easy. Building an effective integrated marketing strategy takes time and resources, but if you choose just one marketing avenue or trending tactic and hope consumers find you, you don’t have much of a business strategy—or chance for survival.
  • How should I respond? To the extent your resources allow, try to implement a multi-faceted approach. Digital legal marketing tools build on and draw strength from one another. For example, a Tweet about a blog post published on your website engages three forms of digital brand-building, making it more likely that search algorithms and consumers alike will see it. (Not sure how to start building that multifaceted marketing strategy? A consultation with your area’s digital legal marketing expert is complimentary and comes with no obligation). To address the concern many legal consumers have about needing skilled representation to avoid future problems, work some empathy into the copy of your website, blog, and/or social media posts. Show and tell potential clients that you understand what it’s like to be them and go through what they’re experiencing and are in a position to help. That strikes a strong chord with people.


Most contact only one attorney

Once they have conducted research, most legal consumers contact only one attorney, and 67% of those consumers do so by placing a call during normal business hours. Most of the legal consumers who placed a phone call expected a response the same day.

  • What does this mean for me? FindLaw research has shown that many attorneys think it’s acceptable to let phone calls go straight to voicemail and to check messages and return calls when it’s convenient for them. Clearly, legal consumers think otherwise. While you might handle, say, five DUI/DWI cases a month, many legal consumers are new to this set of experiences. They feel urgency, and they want to know you grasp their plight and are engaged in helping them remedy the issue.
  • How should I respond? It’s not practical to think you can switch gears and stop what you’re working on every time the phone rings. You have a lot to do and need (and want) to do your actual legal work. The answer here is to have a solid intake process. If you can make it a habit to check messages and return phone calls at, say, the end of every workday, great. If you can’t, consider a chat feature on your website or a virtual scheduling tool. Those approaches provide legal consumers with what they’re looking for — a sense that their request has been received and is being acted upon.


Digital resources increasing in popularity

Digital resources are increasing in popularity — one out of three respondents who set up an appointment used an online calendar, and one out of four respondents video-conferenced with their attorney at some point — yet consumers still want a personal touch.

  • What does this mean for me? Consumers are comfortable with technology. Because it is interwoven into just about all other areas of life, they expect their legal representation to have some facility with it, too. If your website is just your firm name and phone number, it isn’t up to snuff.
  • How should I respond? You need to have both the technology and technical know-how your clients expect you to have. (For helpful pointers on how to come across better in videoconferences, read our Virtual Virtuoso) That being said, you can’t expect technology to do everything for you. It makes the intake process smoother and more efficient and frees you up to focus on other things (like billable work), but it isn’t a substitute for the metaphorical human touch. Recall what we said earlier in this post about most legal consumers being motivated by a sense that they needed skilled representation to avoid future legal problems. Make sure that as you bring a new client on board, you indicate to them that you provide the skilled representation being sought and can help approach their issue head-on.

As you can see, the 2021 Consumer Legal Needs Survey shows that clients move quickly and want their attorney to be responsive and attentive. The second part of our post will further explore what the survey shows about legal consumer behavior. 

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