For Lawyers | Atticus

Front-line support for clients off all stripes

Atticus is a law firm with a unique specialty: we help any individual with a serious legal need to navigate the earliest stages of their case. We diagnose their problems, recommend a course of action, and help them choose the right lawyer to represent them going forward. (This is a service many clients are desperate for, but one no law firm has previously offered in this way.) As a byproduct of our work, we refer vetted clients to top law firms, lawyers, and nonprofits across the country.

The Basics

What is Atticus?

Atticus is a law firm working to build a more ethical and effective way for individual clients to seek and find legal representation. Like any law firm, we are attorney-run, offer legal services to clients, and comply with the rules of professional conduct. But we’re distinctive in a few key ways:

  • We focus exclusively on the earliest stages of each case. For us, a successful representation means educating a client about their options, helping them choose the right approach, and finding them a great attorney to represent them going forward. (This is a service many clients are desperate for, but that's been hard to find until now: non-law-firms can’t legally offer it, and lawyers rarely have any appetite for it.)

  • We’re driven by a core social mission. We serve every client who comes to us regardless of their ability to pay, so the majority of our work is done pro bono. We use revenue from profitable cases to subsidize free tools, advice, and referrals for the rest of our clients.

  • We prioritize ethics and rules-compliance in a space that too often ignores them. Today, lawyer-finding is dominated by non-law-firm tech companies and mass-advertising "referral mill" law firms, both of which play fast and loose with the rules. Atticus takes the opposite approach: legal ethics is a core part our DNA.

  • We build online tools, and integrate them into our practice. It’s what our clients want, and it allows us to scale our impact and compete effectively with the unethical non-law-firm services we’re aiming to replace.

  • We’re free for clients, and fund our operations entirely through fee-sharing with attorneys. Atticus doesn’t bill clients, or charge lawyers to “join” or receive “leads”. Instead, when we make a referral, we sometimes request a percentage of whatever fees the receiving lawyer earns from the representation. We considered a number of possible models, and chose this one because it’s the most ethical, fair, and mission-aligned way for us to fund our work.

Why does Atticus exist?

Today, Americans with serious legal needs find it extraordinarily difficult to find and hire the right lawyer. Atticus exists to change that.

Consider how things work in medicine: When a patient suffers serious physical symptoms, no one expects them to pick the right physician off the bat. Instead, they head to a front-line provider — an emergency room, or primary care doctor — for an initial diagnosis and a referral to the appropriate specialist.

In law, people’s needs aren’t so different: Most clients will require a specialist (a lawyer with highly specific expertise), and for many, it’s an emergency. But there's no equivalent form of front-line support. Instead, we expect clients — many of whom are facing a severe crisis and have never hired a lawyer before — to choose the right person on their first try.

This rarely works out well. Clients hire the wrong lawyers, or give up searching and never get help — with catastrophic results. Good lawyers often struggle to find the right clients: they spend an inordinate amount of time soliciting new business, or sifting through prospective leads who aren’t right for them.

Atticus is working to solve these problems. For clients, we’re a single, trusted place to turn for expert advice and help finding the right lawyer. For lawyers, we’re an ethical source of pre-vetted clients that requires no commitment, no effort, and no up-front cost.

What does Atticus do for clients?

Clients come to us at the very start of their case. Most of them — even quite savvy ones — arrive with a serious need but little idea where to turn for help. They know they have a legal issue, but they wonder: "Do I need a lawyer?" "What will I get if I hire one?" "How much will it cost?" And of course, "Which one should I choose?"

We work with clients individually to answer these questions and get them on the path to solving their legal issues. We educate each client about their options, help them choose a course of action, then track down the best possible lawyer to take their case.

This is the kind of thing many lawyers do on an ad hoc basis for friends and family. But most Americans have never had access to it until now — and even the best-connected clients benefit from the depth of our knowledge and the breadth of our rolodex.

What kinds of clients does Atticus serve?

We'll help just about any individual client who has a serious legal need and wants help hiring a lawyer. As a result, our clients run the gamut, from low-income rural families to wealthy people with advanced degrees (including a few attorneys). Clients typically find us online or via referrals from lawyers or past clients, so we get quite a mix. The largest single piece of our practice is in Social Security Disability law, which we've focused on because it's particularly well-suited to our approach. Employment, Personal Injury, Immigration, Family, and Landlord-Tenant law all make up substantial shares as well. We don't currently take on businesses as clients.

How does Atticus earn money?

We fund our service in only one way: through fee-sharing with attorneys to whom we refer cases. We've crafted this model in consultation with top ethics counsel and a number of attorneys and advisors, and we comply with the rules of professional conduct in all 50 states. (Please see our guide to Ethical Fee Sharing for more.) We chose this model because it best aligns our incentives with both our clients and our co-counsel: No money is ever exchanged unless a representation is a success.

Here's how it works: At the beginning of a representation, Atticus and the other lawyer agree to a percentage split, which we disclose to the client in writing. (In most states, Atticus also agrees to retain responsibility to the client and bear liability if the other lawyer commits malpractice.) At the end of a successful representation, once the lawyer earns and receives their fee, they send us a percentage. If they earn nothing, we get nothing.

For lawyers who aren't familiar with fee-sharing, the concept often causes concern — and understandably so, since the law governing it is complex, confusing, and varied. Because this is a matter of great importance for us, Atticus has worked with the best ethics attorneys in the country to build an ethical and transparent process. We earn fees primarily in areas of law where fee-sharing is common, or from lawyers with whom we've built strong relationships. (We rarely request a share of fees when making our first referral to a given attorney or firm.) And we take time to show lawyers that our model is rules-compliant and good for clients, rather than trying to make a quick buck.

Where does Atticus operate?

For federal issues (like immigration, social security, or taxes), we serve clients nationwide — and occasionally around the world.

For state law issues, we offer detailed legal advice and target advertisements only in California, where we're based. But we help clients find and choose lawyers in all U.S. jurisdictions. (All 50 states permit referrals from out-of-state law firms, and referring to local counsel — as we do in all cases — cures potential issues with unauthorized or multi-jurisdictional practice.)

Structure & Ethics

Is Atticus a "legal tech" company, like Avvo or LegalZoom?

No. In fact, Atticus was purpose-built as an alternative to these companies, which we consider unethical and wrong for most clients.

Atticus is a law firm. We analyze clients’ cases, offer them advice, and vet and recommend specific lawyers for their needs. We comply with the rules of professional conduct in everything we do, and use a business model that strongly aligns our incentives with those of our clients. We bring real legal expertise to bear on complex problems — and we do a huge amount of work pro bono.

None of this is true of companies like Avvo and LegalZoom. As non-law-firms, they’re prohibited from offering advice, recommending attorneys, or earning legal fees. Instead, they make money by selling advertisements (and customers' contact information) to lawyers — and hawking nonsense like prepaid legal plans that few clients need. In our experience, most people would be better off in the yellow pages than on any of these sites.

Atticus does look more like one of these tech companies than a traditional law firm: We’ve got a simple name, an interactive website, and a broad focus. But relative to them, we’re working to build a wholly different model for the future of legal practice. We use technology to deliver old-school lawyering to our clients — not to displace it.

Is Atticus a lawyer referral service (or similar to one)?

No. Lawyer referral services are a unique category of entities authorized by state bar associations to refer clients to attorneys. They’re heavily regulated in how they operate, and typically structured to benefit the bar — not the public. As a result, clients rarely find them useful.

Atticus differs in a number of key ways:

  • Lawyer referral services are staffed by non-lawyers and generally prohibited from giving legal advice; they simply refer each client to a single attorney. Atticus is a law firm that provides detailed legal advice to our clients long before any referral occurs. We present clients with multiple options and help them choose the one that’s right for them.

  • Lawyer referral services don’t meaningfully screen lawyers. By law, most services must admit — and refer clients to — any lawyer who wishes to join and has sufficient insurance coverage and years in practice. Atticus vets lawyers for reputation and talent, and refers clients only to people respected in their fields.

  • Lawyer referral services must make matches essentially at random. By law, most services can’t recommend one lawyer over another; instead, they must refer an equal number of clients to each member within a given practice area. At Atticus, the matching process is anything but random: We work with clients to find the exact right lawyer for their needs, and recommend specific attorneys based on their expertise.

  • Lawyer referral services charge membership fees and impose onerous requirements, so talented and experienced lawyers (who can more easily get clients elsewhere) often choose not to participate. Atticus has no membership rolls and requires no commitment, so top attorneys are happy to receive cases from us.

Is Atticus "disrupting" law?

No. We're practicing law. The entities we're disrupting are tech companies that try to circumvent ethics rules and direct prospective clients to the highest bidder.

To reiterate: Atticus is a law firm. We work personally with clients to find them great, local lawyers to retain. We bring new clients into the system who otherwise wouldn’t have retained counsel, and help lawyers grow their practices without having to advertise. We refer to lawyers on their terms, with no say in pricing, scope, or anything else. In short, we seek to benefit the legal profession as a whole — not to disrupt it.

How does Atticus comply with state ethics rules?

The full answer to this would fill a book, but here are brief responses to the three most common questions we get from attorneys:

“How do you earn a share of fees from referrals?”

Every state has a version of Model Rule 1.5(e), which permits one lawyer or firm to divide a fee with another — including in exchange for a referral. (Rule 5.4(a) is inapposite because Atticus is a law firm; Rule 7.2(b) is inapposite because this type of fee-sharing doesn’t qualify as payment for a recommendation.) To comply with Rule 1.5, we always structure any division of fee as a percentage of fees earned (never a flat amount or up-front payment), and disclose the full terms of any division to the client in writing. In most cases, we also assume “joint responsibility” (usually defined as vicarious liability for acts of malpractice) for the duration of the representation. See our guide to Ethical Fee Sharing for more information.

“How do you give legal advice online?”

We don’t. When we last checked, whether a law firm can offer automated legal advice to clients remains an unanswered question in all states, and Atticus avoids legal gray areas at all cost. While our online tools help us to screen and intake clients, they never give advice.

“How do you practice nationally?”

We do serve clients from all 50 states, but we’re careful not to violate rules on unauthorized practice. For federal issues, we advertise and give advice nationally, but we don't specifically target states other than California. For state law issues, we make referrals everywhere, but don't advertise outside of California or give advice on state-specific laws. (All 50 states permit referrals from out-of-state law firms, and referring to local counsel — as we do in all cases — cures potential issues with unauthorized or multi-jurisdictional practice.)

Can I ethically accept a client from Atticus?

Yes! In all 50 states, attorneys can accept clients referred by other law firms (including out-of-state firms). And in 48 states, attorneys can fairly easily share fees with other law firms (again, including out-of-state firms) in exchange for referrals — provided they follow procedures set forth in their state's equivalent to Model Rule 1.5. (The two exceptions are Hawaii and Wyoming, which restrict fee-sharing but don't bar it; there, Atticus accepts a reduced rate or works pro bono.) See our guide to Ethical Fee Sharing for more.

Why has no one built something like Atticus before?

Regulations make it quite hard. Non-law-firms can't do it, because everything we do qualifies as practicing law. And law firms struggle to do it, because state rules of professional conduct impose serious restrictions. Atticus, for example, is required to take on meaningful liability with each referral we make, and we're limited in how we can raise capital, build technology, and advertise our services. These aren't problems for our clients or co-counsel — often, they're benefits — but they made it very challenging for us to get off the ground.

A few firms have attempted models superficially similar to ours, focused only on profitable contingency-based areas of law. But we're the first to build a practice this broad, to make use of technology to such an extent, and to structure our operations in a way designed to attract the best lawyers as partners in each field of law. It required substantial setup costs and a willingness to prioritize social impact and long-term growth over immediate profits.

Partnerships

Can I join your network and receive referrals from Atticus?

Probably not, unfortunately — at least not yet. Atticus doesn’t currently maintain any formal process for lawyers to ask to get on our radar.

Why? Our search and vetting process is driven in large part by recommendations from attorneys and organizations we trust, and we're extremely picky — so it tends to be far more effective for us to surface prospects than for candidates to contact us. And our clients’ needs are so varied that in most areas of law, it rarely makes sense for us to vet new attorneys in advance of a client request.

As a result, we tend to build relationships proactively and on an ad hoc basis. If a new client comes in and we don't already know the right attorney for them, we'll kick off an intensive and focused search. (As part of that, we meet new lawyers, and only after the process is complete do we discuss the potential for future referrals.) Or if we're growing rapidly in an area of law, we'll launch a broader and more deliberative process to find talented attorneys and convince them to represent our clients.

At this stage in our growth, this method has served us well. Eventually, we plan to create a more formal application portal and help lawyers easily request to partner with us.

Can I refer clients to Atticus?

Yes, absolutely. Many of our clients come to us this way, and we work hard to make every referral a great experience for the referring lawyer as well as the client. We'll keep you posted at every step of the process, and if we earn a fee, we'll either share it with you (applicable law permitting) or make a donation to the charity of your choice.

Please email us (hello@atticus.law) to put new clients in touch or to ask any questions about the process.

What kind of fee arrangement does Atticus expect?

We’re in this for the long run, and our primary goal is to build strong relationships with great lawyers. We rarely request a share of a fees on our first referral to a given attorney, and routinely waive our share after that when it’s in a client's interest.

Where appropriate and once a relationship is built, we aim for whatever existing "accepted rate" is already in use among attorneys in that field of law who refer cases to one another and share fees. Most fields of law have such a rate, and it tends to be fairly consistent across geographies. The rate is typically higher in contingency cases (often 25-33%) and lower for hourly and flat-fee cases (often 10-15%), though it varies widely by field. Our logic is that the accepted rate in each field already reflects custom among attorneys, and has evolved to fairly account for the difficulty of acquiring, screening, and litigating each type of case.

Why should Atticus get a share of my legal fee?

We get it. For lawyers in fields where fee-sharing is uncommon, the idea of giving any share of fees to a referring attorney can seem unfair — particularly in situations where the referring attorney does almost no work. At Atticus, we try to remind our partners of several key points:

  • Atticus does a huge amount of work to attract, screen, and refer each client. We spend money to serve clients, build relationships with attorneys, develop client-facing tools, and attract new clients. Since we don’t charge clients, fee-sharing is the only way we fund our service and cover these costs.

  • The value of this work far outweighs the cost of fee-sharing for most attorneys. Our referrals replace money spent advertising and time spent building relationships, boosting web presence, and handling intake. The clients we refer are educated about their options, have strong cases, and already want to hire the lawyers we refer them to (despite knowing what it will cost); they take little work to screen or convince.

  • Atticus bears serious risk with each referral; our partners bear none. Partnering with Atticus requires no money and no commitment; if you earn nothing from a case we refer, you owe us nothing (and we make no money). Conversely, if you do wrong by our client, Atticus is often legally and ethically on the hook to make things right.

  • Fees shared with us fund a great deal of pro bono work. As a public interest law firm, Atticus serves every client who comes to us, regardless of their ability to pay. We offer free tools and advice, and vet and refer to nonprofits in the same way we do private attorneys. All in all, the majority of our work is done pro bono — and all of this is funded by revenue from fee-sharing.

  • You’re probably already ‘paying’ for referrals in some way. Indirect forms of fee-sharing are already ubiquitous in law. Within law firms, attorneys who bring in clients earn greater shares of profits — even when other attorneys litigate those cases. And individual attorneys routinely refer clients to other attorneys in exchange for something of value: reciprocal referrals. Though Atticus’s ask is more direct and measurable, at core our model isn’t unlike these common practices.

How does Atticus choose and recommend lawyers?

This is the hardest and most complex thing we do, and our primary area of focus. The short answer is that it’s a manual and involved process, and we look for qualities proven by academic research and professional experience to drive good outcomes for clients.

As context: There’s no objective way to evaluate lawyer quality, and there won’t be anytime soon. There’s simply no data set on which to base an evaluation (like a credible, comprehensive repository of case outcomes or client satisfaction). And even if there were, it would be nearly impossible to analyze it effectively given how many factors impact each case.

Therefore, we rely on a lot of human judgment and target a small list of key factors:

  • 1. Specialization. We have a strong preference for single-field lawyers and law firms. Law is complex, and often the only way to become a true expert is to specialize narrowly. (For example, we would aim to refer a disability benefits case not just to a disability lawyer, but to one whose practice focused on the specific stage and type of medical issue involved; we would almost never refer it to a lawyer who did both disability and personal injury law.) Studies have shown that specialization correlates strongly with positive outcomes, and in our experience it’s a good proxy for underlying talent.

  • 2. Experience. We almost never refer a case to a lawyer who hasn’t handled quite similar matters before. We look for experience not only in a given area of law but with similar facts, judges or agencies, and client goals.

  • 3. Reputation. The lawyers we refer to tend to be ones already receiving referrals from peers within and outside their practice area. We look for people known and respected within the bar, who have a demonstrated commitment to sharing knowledge in their field.

  • 4. Client Feedback. Client reviews are notoriously unreliable in law, since most clients have little comparable experience and only a small subset writes reviews. But we carefully solicit client feedback on the dimensions where it tends to be most relevant — like how responsive and personable a lawyer was, or how much a client felt empowered during a case and prepared for its ultimate outcome.

  • 5. Work Product & Outcomes. On occasion, we dive deeply into past work product and outcomes in analogous cases to confirm talent and competence — particularly when the above dimensions are less available, or the stakes are particularly high.

  • 6. Size of Firm. We refer to both solo practitioners and larger firms, and don’t have any blanket preference for size. But we believe some cases benefit from firms of a particular type. For example, in a mid-sized personal injury case, we’d typically seek out a larger firm — with the support staff and institutional processes to effectively work it up — while in a divorce case, we’d seek out an individual lawyer who’s the right personal fit, regardless of firm size.

How we seek out lawyers who meet our criteria? It’s an ad hoc process driven by our staff. We lean heavily on existing professional associations, including both formal membership organizations and informal lawyer-to-lawyer referral and advice networks. We attend conferences, join groups, interview repeat clients with unique insight into the bar (like unions), and talk with lawyers, clients, judges, and others to build our rolodex. Over time, we capture a wealth of information from our actual clients and cases to refine our evaluations.