Almost immediately after the decision issued granting dismissal of disciplinary charges against the Connecticut 5, Total Attorneys issued a press release proclaiming that the Connecticut Statewide Grievance Committee “validated” its internet advertising model.
Total Attorneys President Kevin Chern says that Connecticut has truly vindicated the company’s Internet advertising model. “The Committee heard evidence from the state’s Chief Disciplinary Counsel and examined our business model,” he said. “After carefully considering how consumers reach our sites, what information is collected, how territories are divided and the disclaimers provided for consumers, the Committee determined that we are not recommending attorneys but simply providing advertising.”
While I’m happy for the five lawyers who stood as scapegoats for Total Attorneys, Chern’s proclamation of validation is not merely premature but disingenuous. So what is it that they did?
Total Attorneys is one of the magic bullet websites that allows lawyers in specific niches to “purchase” territory. TA works Google to gain prominent page rank so that potential clients go to its websites when they are searching for a lawyer. The clients put in their zip code and are sent to the lawyer who owns that turf. In TA lingo, these clients are called “leads”, and the lawyer pays TA $65 for every lead who contacts them, whether they are retained or not.
The decision was based on the distinction between a referral and a recommendation. The grievance committee found that clients were referred, but not recommended, and hence there was no violation of their disciplinary rules because the rules are limited to recommendations rather than referrals. That’s one thin reed.
To reach this conclusion, the committee relied largely upon a disclaimer on Total Attorneys’ website claiming that this was not a recommendation. Disciplinary counsel argued that when one, and only one, lawyer’s name comes up to an inquiring consumer, that’s tantamount to a recommendation. The committee said no.
The decision states that “territorial exclusivity of the arrangement was not an implied endorsement and that the fees charged . . . were the appropriate costs of advertising on the website.” The former position is dubious at best. The latter is facially wrong.
When a potential client asks for the names of lawyers who serve a particular niche, and in return receives one, and only one, name, there can be no clearer message. This is the lawyer to use. This one lawyer, because they’ve only been given one lawyer. No one tells the client that the reason is that the lawyer bought his territory. There’s no mention of that nasty little detail. If there was, I suspect clients would run the other way as fast as they could, recognizing how deceptive and manipulative this recommendation referral was.
But to equate paying $65 per lead to the sharing of advertising costs is absurd. Costs are fixed. Leads are variable. To argue otherwise is nonsense. To believe otherwise is just plain wrong. The business model of Total Attorneys is to sell “leads,” those nice people who lawyers are supposed to think of as their respected clients.
While Kevin Chern’s claim of “validation” may be seriously overwrought, it’s true that the Total Attorneys advertising model wasn’t condemned. That being so, buying up some turf from TA (and getting a free pass to the Get A Life Conference) may not result in having your ticket yanked. But that doesn’t mean that any lawyer with a semblance of integrity or honor can now hook up with TA with a clear conscience.
There are a wealth of opportunities on the internet to engage in conduct that has the potential to bring in a few bucks, at the cost of your integrity. Some think that words like integrity, not to mention honor, professionalism and excellence, are only used by us dinosaurs. Bottom feeders are always looking for the get rich quick scheme. The Slackoisie believe that the practice of law is all about what’s in it for them. It’s up to each of us to decide what type of lawyer we want to be. Not just our particular niche of the law, but whether we will do anything for a buck, no matter how slimy or disreputable.
Just because the Connecticut grievance committee didn’t rule against the five doesn’t mean that we need to race to the bottom. It’s up to each of us to select our path, high or low.
H/T Kevin O’Keefe