Is Your Online Lawyer Maverick-y? (Special Butthurt Button Extra!!!)

Lexblog CEO, Kevin O’Keefe, who keeps track of such things because that’s how he makes his living, recently estimated that there are still only 2-5% of lawyers who are really active online. I would add that most are young, inclined to be active because they’re digital natives. The rest dabble a bit at best.

At the same time, there is no denying that people in need of legal services search online. It’s a foolish and terrible way to find a lawyer, but people often do foolish and terrible things as long as it’s easy. Finding a lawyer online is easy; type “criminal lawyer” into a search engine and see what pops up.

The results provide three things: A list of lawyers to consider. Information crafted by marketeers and boiler room writers in Bangalore about how to select a lawyer. Lawyer websites telling searchers why they should retain that particular lawyer.  From credible sources, like Carolyn Elefant, to less than credible sources, lawyers are told that this means of getting business levels the playing field and, if deftly handled, provides the means to success.

But you know all this.  And you know that on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. And you know that anybody can lie through their teeth on the internet and nobody will know. Or more likely, puff their skill, experience and empathy to project the qualities that potential clients look for. And load it up with rich keywords, like “Houston criminal defense lawyer” to game the search engines.  And if all works as it should, you will never go hungry again.

How cool is it to be a Texas criminal defense lawyer with a name like Maverick? I mean, seriously, somebody’s mother (unless the lawyer just assumed the name for fun) knew what she was doing, amirite?  Yet, the same cool factor can serve to get one noticed not only by people who want to love you, but people whose scrutiny might be less welcome. Like Houston criminal defense lawyer Mark Bennett.

The cal­low­est young lawyer puts up a web­site in which he calls him­self “The Law Offices of Mav­er­ick Ray” (he has one office), “An Expe­ri­enced Hous­ton Sex Crimes Lawyer Your Free­dom Can Depend On” (he has been licensed for less than eight months and been hired on one felony sex case), “the Assas­sin of Sup­pres­sion” (Har­ris County records show no granted sup­pres­sion motions in drug cases), “Houston’s pre­mier DWI Attor­ney” (I won­der what Gary Trichter or Troy McK­in­ney, or Lewis Dick­son, to name but three of Houston’s top DWI lawyers, with decades of expe­ri­ence each, would have to say about that), “often opt­ing to let a jury deter­mine whether some­one was truly intox­i­cated rather than the highly flawed Field Sobri­ety Tests, Breath Tests, or Blood Tests” (Dis­trict Clerk records do not show him try­ing a sin­gle DWI case in Har­ris County dur­ing those eight months).

Maybe all of this can some­how be ratio­nal­ized in a cal­low young lawyer’s mind, but it just isn’t true.

On the one hand, Maverick seems to have gotten some cases because of his website. Probably not for the fees a more experienced lawyer would expect, but volume compensates for the adequacy of the fee. And if you scarf up the money and dispose of the case quick and dirty, it pays off for the lawyer if not the client.

On the other hand, as Bennett explains, if Maverick is getting cases for which he’s not yet qualified , then somebody else isn’t, which means they need to get in the game and out maverick Maverick.

The tier of lawyers above Mav­er­ick Ray—lawyers who have some expe­ri­ence but who, for what­ever rea­son, seek only small fees—see Ray’s mar­ket­ing and think that they are los­ing busi­ness, so they get online and, like Mav­er­ick Ray, they don’t worry a whole lot about the truth of their mar­ket­ing—it’s a mar­ket­ing avenue; it pro­vides an inter­net pres­ence. The next tier of lawyers—lawyers who cost a lit­tle more, and maybe have a lit­tle more experience—see them get­ting online. They slap some­thing together, or pay some­one to do it for them, with­out a lot of fidelity to the truth.

Each layer of lawyer cake takes its cues from the layer below, rather than from the layer above.

For some time now, I’ve implored lawyers to refuse to join the race to the bottom, not to put on the pink hotpants and roam the boulevard.  Some have agreed with me. Most have not, whether because it doesn’t comport with their short term need for revenue or they listen to louder voices than mine.  And so I keep pounding the point, much to the annoyance of those who have heard it one time too many.

After reading Bennett’s post, and recognizing that his layer cake analogy strained to find a new way to explain the problem, it occurred to me that the people who spend their time arguing for access and transparency and ground leveling might take notice of what this is doing to clients: The internet is perceived as a truth-free zone, where lawyers can put up websites that make false claims to deceive potential clients.

You’ve argued that the deception is wrong, but the mechanism is wonderful. You’ve argued that while touting the wonders of the internet as both a means of marketing and a means of searching for lawyers, it’s sufficient to throw in a few words about keeping it clean and honest.  There have been huge discussions about what exactly that means, as even those who agree that lawyers shouldn’t deceive want the line to be as fuzzy as possible.

In other words, you want to have your cake and eat it too.

Yes, there is nothing in this post that I haven’t written before, except the questionable cake analogy. But every day more lawyers discover the internet, and make the decision to see how well the hotpants fit.  For those who want so desperately to believe that this tool can make things better, the message they don’t want to hear is that lawyers can’t be trusted with a tool this powerful and susceptible to abuse.

Here’s what Ray had to say when I gave him a chance to take down his site—be the stu­dent or be the les­son—before I posted this: “What do you mean decep­tive? It was approved by Texas Bar and is no dif­fer­ent than count­less other attor­neys websites.”

The mistake was in permitting lawyer advertising, made long before the internet existed. The internet just made it too easy for the worst to come out.  The internet is a powerful tool that can make people smarter or stupider, their lives better or worse.  This isn’t access and transparency, and clients aren’t better off being able to search for lawyers when what they find is a layer cake of deception.

And guys like Bennett and me will keep writing this in the hope that someone will pay attention, because the alternative is that we will all end up walking the boulevard in hotpants, trying to look maverick-y.

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13 comments on “Is Your Online Lawyer Maverick-y? (Special Butthurt Button Extra!!!)

  1. Steve Meltzer

    Sometimes I wish you had a “like” button but you probably don’t like “like” buttons. It’s lame to say “me too” or “I agree” but sometimes that is the only response. A “like” button is just as useless and lame but much easier.

    I’ve decided, therefore, the republish your blog posts on a separate blog but add a like button. That way, we can all see how many people like your posts and give you more “exposure.”

    No need to thank me.

    1. SHG Post author

      No need to thank me.

      Heh. I suspect that if I had those dopey like or hate buttons, I wouldn’t fare well. While a lot of people read SJ, it’s not because they share my sensibilities.

        1. SHG Post author

          That’s a great idea. Can you make me a button that says “Click here if this post hurt your feelings,” and then have it go directly to paypal to make a $100 donation to the Special Little Snowflake Fund for Curmudgeons?

      1. Robert David Graham

        On my blog, most of the comments happen on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YCombinator, and other site — people rarely comment on the blogpost itself. The “like” button isn’t really to track likes, but to track comments.

        1. SHG Post author

          There is nothing I can do to stop people from commenting wherever they feel like commenting, but since I don’t traverse social media in search of comments, I don’t see them and, more importantly, other readers don’t see them. So to the extent a post may generate any worthwhile discussion, if it’s not happening here, then it’s lost for me and most other readers. Since the discussion is part of the deal, I want it where the post is so we can all participate and gain from it.

          As for the whole “like” concept, feh. Likes are for kids and kitteh pics. Big boys disagree all the time, and that’s the way it should be. A better idea than “like” is “made me think.”

  2. Thomas R. Griffith

    Sir, (howdy) if a Medical Doctor were to advertise what is perceived to be deceptive claims and clients / patients took the bait, would the doc be on the hook for malpractice or is it you are screwed – buyer beware?

    Seems like they would be held accountable, just as it seems like any lawyer that does so (knowingly & willingly) would be, if it harmed clients’. To this day, when I hear – “He’s the best of the best” & “years of experience”, it makes me cringe. Thanks for vetting and re-vetting & happy holiday to you & yours.

    1. SHG Post author

      Malpractice has to do with the physician’s performance of his duties within the standard of care required. Ethics and malpractice are separate issues.

      Happy holidays to you and yours, Thomas, and good to hear from you.

  3. Carolyn Elefant

    Mea culpa. I know I am in the have cake and eat it too camp – but I am torn. Though I’m no fan of these kinds of sites and I do believe that the deceptions hurt clients (and I have been sued for so stating), I still believe that the benefits of access afforded by the Internet outweigh the drawbacks. I know that I have become acquainted with many good lawyers through listserves and blogs (though I eventually met most in person) – and in at least three instances, referred cases to these lawyers – cases that I could not have otherwise referred but for the online connection. Likewise, I have been “found” online by several clients in one of my practice areas, and twice took over cases that had been neglected or mishandled by prior counsel.
    Occasionally, I will highlight a deceptive lawyer website but not routinely or frequently. I don’t do it more partly because I just don’t track the sites as much, partly because I don’t like to bandwagon blog (so if it’s truly awful and many others have covered the matter, I won’t) and partly because public criticism is not my style. or example, a few times, I will privately email law firms responsible for contacts by spam bloggers or who have questionable copy on their website – and at least in the latter instance, the lawyer thanked me for my input and made the change.
    But I am also concerned that routinely e-shaming offenders does little to deter their conduct – and instead, has a chilling effect on more ethical lawyers. There is a silent contingent of lawyers who still refrain from blogging because they are afraid of being sued by a commenter or caught up in a public controversy. Certainly we don’t that we have any obligation to encourage gutless lawyers from posting online – and I’m not suggesting that bloggers should tone down criticism to cater to the timid. Still, many of these lawyers do good work and if they came online, they might eventually out-populate the bad apples.

    1. SHG Post author

      TL;dr, so you like having your cake and eating it too, want to be on all side of the issue without hurting anyone’s feelings, and really, really wish unethical lawyers would stop being unethical, and that they would just do it without you having to take any responsibility for doing anything about it.

      Did I get that right? It would be great if lawyers just behaved ethically. But wishing won’t make that happen.

      And I was with you when you got sued. Me too. It didn’t change me. Did it change you?

  4. Logan

    Is the Butthurt button intended to link to something, or is it intentionally linking to your 404 error page? I am curious who will become the lucky beneficiaries of the Special Little Snowflake Fund for Curmudgeons.

    1. SHG Post author

      Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Try the one on the sidebar, but you have to promise to go all the way.

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