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Good Guys, Poseurs And Charlatans: Lawyer Websites And The Quandry For Consumers

November 25, 2011

Good Guys, Poseurs and Charlatans: Lawyer Websites and the Quandry for Consumers

Twenty years ago I was sitting in our living room one day with my grandmother.  A particularly distasteful lawyer ad came on TV.  At the time I was in law school and TV lawyer advertising was still relatively new and controversial.  I looked at my grandmother and asked, “Who in the world would ever hire THAT guy?”

“I might” she replied.

“What?!”  I was incredulous.

My grandmother, who was a retired high school teacher in Gainesville, Florida, told me something that day that hit home.  “Get down off of your high horse” she told me.  “Of course I might hire him.  If I was hurt, I don’t know any lawyers.  So I might very well hire him, or someone like him.  And you need to remember that there are lots of people like me that don’t know any lawyers either.”

She made a point that is still easy for me, as a practitioner, to forget: many people don’t know any lawyers, or even know anyone else who knows one.   That is why, during the last 20 years, we’ve seen the explosion of television-advertising mega-firms,  some that do a phenomenal job for their clients and some that are “churn and burn” mills whose lawyers never go to trial and are fraught with legal malpractice on a daily basis.

I followed one of Tom Young’s tweets yesterday to a great article by Eric Turkewitz about some ultra-sketchy websites some west coast PI lawyers have put up to chase victims of the Penn State sex abuse scandal.   The lawyer sites Turkewitz discussed are embarrassingly tacky but seemingly within the Bar Rules of permissible communication.  The same is true with respect to lawyer ads on print and TV.  I was in New Mexico a few years ago and saw a lawyer hopping around with – and I’m not making this up – boxing gloves.  Unprofessional?  Absolutely.  In violation of the New Mexico Bar Rules?  Nope.  Do people call him? Every day.  In droves.

For years the Florida Bar has had some of the most restrictive Rules in the country governing lawyer advertising and attorney websites.  A 2010 case challenging certain aspects of the Florida Rules brought by the Harrell & Harrell firm showed that Florida’s Rules may be in violation of the First Amendment because of the vague and arbitrary manner in which they are written and enforced.   On top of this of course, State Bar Associations like Florida are still struggling with how to develop Rules for online advertising and social media, and certainly have not implemented a comprehensive plan for enforcement.

Meanwhile consumers like my grandmother, who don’t have lawyer friends, go online in search of legal services.  And what they find is essentially the wild wild west.  There are good guys,  bad guys, cowboys, crooks and poseurs.  There are thousands of websites where lawyers tout themselves as “trial lawyers” who have never picked a jury.  Lightweight lawyers claim to handle “wrongful death” or “product liability” cases who aren’t remotely qualified to handle a product or death case and refer all such cases out to specialists for a referral fee.  Then there are the “bundlers” – most of whom aren’t even lawyers — who rank highly on Google for personal injury services and sell leads or bogus directory positions to the highest bidder.

There are good sites too, of course, based on peer review surveys such as Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers, Law Dragon, etc…  But you have to know what and and where to look.    And unless a consumer knows a lawyer to ask, it’s impossible to sort through the weeds.   Which is why a consumer should always talk to friends and family to find a lawyer, based on reputation, who is competent to handle a particular matter.

But the quandry is this: many folks don’t know a lawyer.  It’s why so many of them flock to a toll free number on TV or a random site on the internet.  One day hopefully social media will bring everyone so close together that it will help consumers sort through this mess.  But it’s just not there yet.  Meanwhile, for folks like my grandmother, at least for now, Turkewitz nailed it: one of the first rules for looking for a lawyer is to ignore the stuff you see online.

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