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.