PSA: How Not To Find A Lawyer (Update)

Search Google. Look in a legal directory. Find a “prequalified” lawyer near you who is waiting by the phone to answer your questions.  Select a lawyer who provides free answers to your legal question on the internet.  These are not the way to find a lawyer.

In discussing the methodologies used by legal marketers to fake out methodologies used by search engines to prevent people from gaming the system, one of the reactions came from a legal marketer who saw this as an opportunity to smear his competition (sure, the others are lying scum) while promoting himself (but not me, I’m the real thing and make people fabulously wealthy!!!)  My tolerance for such shenanigans is very limited.

While I’ve written quite a bit in the past about unethical or deceptive marketing by lawyers, directed toward lawyers not putting on hotpants and strutting the boulevard to score a buck, and about what potential clients should do to find the right lawyer for their case, I haven’t written as much about what’s wrong with the dreck cottage industry of legal marketing that seeks to deceive potential clients through slimy lies.

Mind you, individual lawyers who use marketing services aren’t necessarily bad lawyers. In fact, some lawyers who engage in awful marketing schemes are quite good, D.C.’s  David Benowitz coming immediately to mind.  The point is that a lawyer who markets isn’t necessarily a bad lawyer, but the marketing effort is a red flag that tells the potential client to think twice. And probably, stay away.

There are dozens of “lawyer directories” on the internet, most proclaiming themselves to be the foremost. They’re lying. They use vague words like “Number One!!!” or “Premier,” which mean nothing and are mere puffery. But that’s just the start.

These are nothing more than “coop advertising” schemes, where lawyers pay a monthly fee to advertise their availability.  The website owner puts in as much puffery as he can fit, with a disclaimer in tiny print somewhere off the screen that everything it says on the website is a lie and he guarantees absolutely nothing.  Look around, It’s there somewhere, if you can find it.

The scheme is to deceive potential clients into believing that the lawyers are “prequalified,” suggesting that these are at minimum competent lawyers, at best fabulous lawyers.  Prequalified means that they are in fact license to practice law somewhere, and paid their monthly fee.  It doesn’t mean they actually practice what they claim to practice or are any good at it. It’s just a scam.

Marketers will not only deny this with their dying breath, but use every marketing trick in the book to conceal the truth.  They have to, as they make their living off lying to you.  If they can’t produce potential clients, lawyers won’t pay them money. 

They anticipate that most potential clients are too naive, stupid or desperate to see through their meaningless marketing jargon, and they’re mostly right. People still have this bone in their head that makes them think that if someone says something in writing, it must be true. It’s not, but more important, it doesn’t really say what you think it says.

But it takes a fairly sophisticated understanding of language and law to appreciate the nuance that allows them to lie with relative impunity.  You might think that if this just a big old scam, lawyers wouldn’t participate in it. Sadly, there are many lawyers who will do anything to make a buck.  And in a lousy economic environment, lawyers tend to close their eyes and ears whenever it’s convenient, just like anyone else.

And then there’s the loss leader, the websites that offer free answers from real lawyers to your legal questions. This is a come on. The answers are almost invariably worthless, not because the lawyers who answer are necessarily incompetent or failing to try to be helpful, though that happens regularly, but because your questions suck. In order to provide a response to a legal question that’s even modestly worthwhile, a great deal of information, details, specifics, is required.

Your question tend to be awful, failing to provide anything remotely close to the level of specific, accurate, complete info necessary for an even remotely useful answer. It’s not that you don’t try, but you don’t know what’s needed for a valid response. And the responses you get are based on the information you’ve provided, making them utterly worthless, perhaps even dangerously wrong.  Yet, everybody loves the idea of getting free legal advice. Free is better than good.  Heck, for free, people are willing to accept awful. Think about it: do you really want dangerously wrong legal advice, even if the price is right? That’s what you’re getting.

So what are the things you should look for to not find a lawyer?

  • Any website that says it can find you a lawyer in your area.
  • Any website that says its lawyers are “prequalified.”
  • Any website that offers free answers to your legal questions.
  • Any lawyer who claims to have won a non-existent award (unless it’s obviously a joke), belong to a nonexistent group or be on a sham list of 100 best lawyers, blawgers, whatever.
  • Any lawyer who promotes that he’s a SuperLawyer, Best Lawyer, Super-de-duper Lawyer, or any variation on this theme.
  • Any lawyer who provides a partial resume, including the details that he thinks will impress you while concealing the ones that won’t.
  • Any lawyer who posts client testimonials on his website.
  • Any lawyer who uses bogus “guest posts” on his blog.
  • Any lawyer who uses a ghostwriter to produce content.
  • Any lawyer who uses stock photos of others on his website.
  • Any lawyer who uses stock content/language on his website.
  • Any lawyer who claims to specialize in every practice area there is.
  • Any lawyer who claims to be an “expert.”
  • Any lawyer whose physical location is not in the jurisdiction where he’s admitted to practice.
  • Any lawyer who doesn’t tell you where he’s physically located.
  • Any lawyer who writes about his fabulous wins, unless he also writes about horrible defeats.
  • Any lawyer who uses language to suggest he’s the “best,” “number 1,” “foremost,” “premier,” “leading,” in his field.
No doubt there are other things that should be included on this list, and perhaps others will add to it in the comments, but there is one overarching theme here. Don’t be taken in by marketing schemes that are carefully crafted to deceive. It’s bad enough that lawyers are willing to put on their hotpants for a case. Don’t be fooled by pretty legs.

And fair warning to anyone who wants to argue in favor of their marketing scheme. Anticipate that I will be happy to explain why each is wrong, deceptive, unethical or a scam, and you may well end up very unhappy with my response. But if you still want to try, use your real name. Anonymous attempts to spin your marketing won’t fly on this post.  If you want to argue that your marketing scheme is legit, then have the guts to put your name to it.

And while I’ve often used the adage, “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” I add to the pantheon of truisms this new comic, via Jamison Koehler, to give you pause.

And that’s who could be sitting on the other end of the computer. Nice bunny slippers, right?

Here’s the bottom line: the internet allows anyone and everyone to manufacture a persona designed to entice you to give them your money and trust them with your life, fortune and rights.  It’s a great source of information, particularly for verification of claims, but so filled with lies and deception that there is no way for you to distinguish truth from fiction.  Granted, we’ve allowed it to become a cesspool. but that doesn’t mean you have to wallow in it. 

Know the red flags of deception. Look for the red flags. Cross those lawyers who engage in deceptive marketing off your list.  Once deceptive marketing efforts fail to produce “leads,” “pigeons” and “prospects,” even the most unethical or ignorant lawyer will figure out he’s throwing good money after bad and clean up his act.  If lawyers can’t manage to conduct themselves honorably on their own, then let the market do so for them. Do not patronize lawyers who engage in deceptive marketing practices.  For your own sake, not theirs.

Update: Shortly after posting this, Brian Tannebaum emailed me about the fact that I include on my website my Martindale-Hubbel and Avvo ratings.  He questioned whether this was hypocritical of me, and it’s a fair question. 

To the extent there is any legitimate external rating of lawyers, these two ratings are the extant industry standard.  In other words, these are the best we have, to the extent they mean anything at all, to provide a verifiable claim of what others think of us. 

Are they valid indicators of anything? Probably not. Are they legitimate? They claim to be, and the profession has long accepted M-H ratings, and is adapting to Avvo ratings to some extent.  And so, I put them on my website because they are as legitimate as rating get, for better or worse, and they reflect what someone else says about me, not what I claim about myself.

That said, I noticed something else on my website that made me cringe. When I created my website five years ago, I included a line that said, “nationally recognized for excellence.” I know what I intended at the time, and what the basis for the statement was. However, in looking at it now, my intentions are irrelevant and it’s unacceptable hype. I have deleted it. I am ashamed that I included it.  The only saving grace is that no one has evern retained me because of it.

All of which leads to two important points: I appreciate that Tannebaum called me out. He was right to do so, and that’s what friends do for each other, tell them when their fly is down.  Second, I was wrong to include what appeared to be puffery on my website, and when I realized my mistake, I took it down.  You can too.

26 thoughts on “PSA: How Not To Find A Lawyer (Update)

  1. Dave

    When I was just getting started a few years ago, I had an interview with a small firm and I met with the name partner. He was an affable fellow, and he asked what I thought about “client development”.

    I gave him my standard, uninformed speil about networking events, blah, blah, blah. He looked at me and said, “You’re wrong.” I didn’t get the job. But I did get his advice and I’ll be damned if he wasn’t spot on. Now, I share it with lawyers considering “legal marketing” whenever I can:

    1. Do excellent work.
    2. Charge a reasonable fee.
    3. Keep your clients happy by doing #1 and #2

    That is client development to me now. I’ve tried my best to always do those things, and sure enough, nearly every client I’ve had has referred me to at least one more. And those referral clients have been the *best*.

  2. SHG

    Without question, it’s that simple for lawyers. This post is directed toward the many people who need a lawyer, who use the web and who are the targets of the various schemes to deceive. The web is wonderful. The web is dangerous. The legal needs of the public are too important to leave in the hands of marketing scammers.

  3. Dave

    Fortunately, for my practice areas, my clients are business people: so they ask each other and their communities for referrals. I think it’s harder for individuals, especially in areas that may have a stigma, like finding a good divorce, bankruptcy, or criminal attorney… people are often too embarrassed about *needing* one that they don’t want to ask family/friends who may have used someone in the past. Which is a shame, but I’m not sure about the solution. I do know it’s not legal marketing though.

  4. SHG

    And therein lies the problem. Googling lawyers is easy and private. Seeking references from people they trust is harder and, as you say, can be embarrassing.  The problem is that it googling may be easier, it’s also worthless at best, dangerous at worst. As with so many things in life, it’s a Menckian dilemma: simple, easy and completely wrong.

  5. Max Kennerly

    SuperLawyers is a silly popularity contest, but at least it’s a popularity contest among practicing lawyers in the same jurisdiction. It’s methodology is at least as defensible as Martindale-Hubbel or Avvo.

  6. SHG

    That’s what they want you to believe, Max. Don’t be so gullible.

    By the way, I do not fault lawyers for including a SuperLawyer badge on the website. It’s not nearly as bad as some I’ve seen. My issue is with promoting their SuperLawyerdom as opposed to merely noting it, as if it’s an valid independent basis demonstrating the quality of their representation and an independent reason for retention.

  7. Max Kennerly

    It’s my understanding SuperLawyers has cleaned up significantly over the past five years in terms of sticking to legit lawyers, following a real methodology, and not explicitly selling ratings, while Martindale-Hubbel and Avvo have both aimed themselves towards the gutter by giving a wink-nudge over the role of purchasing advertising.

    I’m not saying SuperLawyers is objective and pure as sunshine, just that I think they’re comparable to Martindale-Hubbel and Avvo, and so it isn’t necessarily a strike against someone to mention it in passing. But, of course, if a lawyer’s primary distinction is that they were a SuperLawyer, well, that speaks for itself.

  8. SHG

    “It’s my understanding…?” Oh, really? Well, that changes everything. It’s my understanding that nothing has changed.

    Let’s bear in mind, Max, that this isn’t a post about SuperLawyers, or a post about “what does Max think,” so that you don’t post (or try to post) another half dozen comments persisting in whatever it is you feel compelled to comment about. You’ve said what you have to say. Now go out and play with the other children. Be home for dinner.

  9. RJ

    The SuperLawyers is complete nonsense, in New Jersey at least. Someone I barely knew from law school recently emailed me to “endorse” him for the Superlawyers by filling out an online questionnaire. Had I been so inclined I could have easily endorsed him as the most brilliant lawyer in his field, without knowing anything about him. Saying it’s as good as Martindale Hubbell isn’t saying anything: the MH process starts off with the payment of a fee, as I know from when they solicited me. The saddest thing about the Superlawyers scam is that the NJ Supreme Court has endorsed it, giving it a facade of legitimacy. Further, what does it matter if you retain a Superlawyer at a big or mid-sized firm; it doesn’t mean that you’re still not going to have your matter passed off to the inexperienced associate.

  10. SHG

    Back in the old days, the M-H ratings were, at least facially, legit. Given what’s happened with M-H and its new marketing model, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was total garbage. I hate to be so skepitcal about everything, but it’s hard not to be given how everything has become a money making opportunity at lawyers’ the public’s expense.

  11. AP


    The other day I attended our annual Criminal Lawyers’ conference and the very first speaker was one of your fellow NY City criminal defence lawyers Benjamin Brafman. His topic was, “The Omnipresence of Social Media: A New Age for Criminal Law.” Obviously Mr. Brafman’s reputation preceded him and any one of your readers who doesn’t know who he is can Google his name to see that he’s a criminal lawyer’s criminal lawyer.

    During his hour-long speech not once did he tell us to create a website or a twitter account. Nor did he try to make us understand how Pinterest or LinkedIn will make us better lawyers or get us any clients. I would also add that the man just spoke; no notes, no PowerPoint and no gimmicks. Not one person around me reached for their smart-phone during his speech to check their email or Twitter feed. The man held our attention.

    The point of his speech was how he’s used (to his clients’ advantage) the stupid, moronic, puffed-up claims that people make in emails, on Facebook, on Twitter and social media in general. He said that as lawyers we need to learn how to take advantage of the way that some people spew their thoughts and general BS to the world on the Internet in order to defend our clients. He also spoke about preparation. I swear he must have used that term a couple dozen times in 60 minutes. That’s how, he said, you win cases and that’s how you become a successful lawyer.

    Post Script

    Try as I might, for the life of me, I can’t find Benjamin Brafman’s Pinterest page. Seriously, how does he expect to continue getting clients in this new age of social media?

  12. SHG

    You just couldn’t stop yourself from commenting again. Come on, the other children are waiting for you. There’s a wonderful game of tag going on outside, and you’ll have so much fun. Run, Max. Run like the wind.

  13. RJ

    The post is all true, but what is the solution? How do you “market” for clients? It’s not only doing what Dave said (do excellent work etc), at least not anymore in the current environment, though I think that approach worked 20 years ago (and I would love it if it worked now). 20 or 30 years ago, you set up shop, did good work, became established and it was like being a doctor: you had a good reputation and had clients.
    What now? All the current Internet marketing is sleazy, no argument. But what do you do? Potential clients under 30 (who need that divorce or have a criminal charge) aren’t even going to do something as quaint as consulting the Martindale Hubbell or Superlawyer listings; they’re going to hit the social media button on their smartphones. My brother in law and his girlfriend are in their 20’s, I can’t imagine them reading a flyer let alone a newspaper. People under 30 are so cynical that they are going to think your concerns about the internet are so, well, judgmental. Just text me the name of a lawyer who’s on Facebook already.

  14. SHG

    Your question is on the wrong end of this post. As I said in the post, this isn’t about lawyers, but clients being deceived. And yet, you ask what lawyers can do to market themselves. Suck it up. Either put on your hotpants and walk the boulevard, or stop asking.  Dave gave you the answer. It’s not easy and fails to capitalize on the internet’s ability to create a fabulous marketing persona. 

    If the fear is that the sleazy lawyers who use the internet to deceive people into hiring them will win, they might. Unless honorable lawyers stand up, refuse to go for the gutter and call out the sleazy ones. Integrity has a price.

  15. RJ

    You’ve written a post about the bad aspects of internet marketing, but don’t offer a solution. (And you accuse me of bitching?) Dave offers one but it is less than satisfying. (The older lawyer told him not even to network in the traditional way? That sounds odd.) Plus, it simply begs the question of how to get clients to begin with. It’s easy for someone like Dave’s boss (or you, probably) who got established in traditional ways where there were less lawyers/more clients to say, “stay out of the gutter.” I know a few lawyers who are established and don’t even have websites and business it’s fine for them (and it’s easy for them to make fun of internet markeeting. But I think someone who comes out of law school now has to go on facebook, even if only to get the referrals from friends and relatives.

  16. AP

    I’m gonna put in a good word to get you up to Toronto next year. You may want to speak with Ben though he told us in the nicest way possible that our bagels suck. Can’t say that I disagree with him.

  17. SHG

    Why does everyone think there’s a solution that suits their desires?  I was probably very unclear, which is why you were unable to follow me.

    1. Be a marketing whore, or
    2. Don’t be a marketing whore.

    You say that it’s not possible to start a successful practice by working hard, doing right by your clients and establishing a reputation of competence and integrity? I say it is. You say it can’t be done without being a conveniently sleazy lawyer on the internet (“I’m ethical, but I have to market myself like I’m not or I won’t have any business…”). I say bullshit. You won’t get rich fast by doing good work, but you will gain the appreciation of your clients, who in turn will refer others to you. You will gain the admiration of other lawyes, who will refer clients to you. You will gain the respect of your adversaries and judges, who will speak well of you.

    And if you can’t get referrals from friends or relatives without Facebook then you have far greater problems than you think. Your friends and family have no respect for you, and they know you. That explains the need to create a fake internet persona.

    Is any of this making sense yet?

  18. RJ

    I didn’t say anything is “impossible”; of course, your way is possible (preferable, in a perfect world). What I’m suggesting is that my 24-year old second cousin, whom I see only at weddings and funerals, isn’t going to contact me over the phone, the way my 56-year old third cousin would. My 24-year old second cousin is going to immediately go on Facebook to remind him who among his friends and families are lawyers or know lawyers. The last time he talked to me was at a funeral 2 years ago. Whoops, I’m not on Facebook (and by the way I’m not)! I’m busy laboring away as a “solo” in an office of the 65-year old p.i. attorney (who trades me rent in exchange for per diem work), establishing my “reputation” traditionally and so I don’t represent my cousin, who has no car but a $400 smartphone. By the way, both my 24 year old cousin and 56 year old cousin think the legal industry is mostly sleaze anyway (though they think I am the exception) and so they don’t hold it against the sleazy lawyer with the internet presence; they just figure it’s part of being a lawyer in today’s world. So I’ve lost a case but I suppose I’m not a whore at least.

  19. SHG

    If I understand it correctly, your point is that if your 24 year old cousin has someone to refer, he will forget you’re a lawyer if you aren’t on Facebook?  And you want a solution for that?  I’m afraid that there is no solution for brain death. It’s incurable.

    There is nothing wrong with maintaining an honest web presence. If that’s what it takes to remind your 24-year-old cousin that you exist (I’m still kinda stuck on exactly how stupid this kid is), that’s fine. That your 24-year-old cousin sees nothing wrong with being sleazy isn’t surprising. It seems to be a pervasive problem with the generation, including lawyers, for whom moral relativism and situational ethics allow them to do as they please while maintaining a fiction in their heads that they are wonderful. They think acting honorably is an archaic concept that no longer applies, and that the internet is a truth free zone.

    So the answer is, acquiesce to the lowest, the worst, the sleaziest, because that’s what people do these days, or fight against it and refuse to become a part of it. And if you don’t get the referral from your 24-year-old cousin, so what? You will be too busy with good cases referred by people who aren’t brain dead anyway.

    By the way, the reason I write posts like this is to stop people from using bad methods to find bad lawyers. Would it be more helpful to bolster this concept or fight it?  Do your comments help to illuminate the dangers or encourage people to be sleazy and use sleazy methods? Are you part of the fight against unethical conduct or the fight for it?

    Aside: See that blue “Reply to this” button? Please use it rather than a new comment for each response. It’s how we keep discussion reasonably orderly. Thanks.

  20. Paul Majors

    I think we need to clarify several issues that most of us should be able to agree on.

    1. The internet is here to stay.
    2. Yellow page and print advertising is dying.
    3. Consumers often don’t know how to shop for a lawyer – they don’t know what they don’t know.
    4. Competition for clients has increased with the declining economy and the glut of law school graduates.
    5. Lawyers have a right to advertise and a duty to inform the public of their rights.
    6. The best advertising is word of mouth from a satisfied client.
    7. Some types of satisfied clients would rather not share their satisfaction because of the delicate nature of their legal problems.
    8. Lawyers usually need a continuing source of new clients to maintain and/or grow their business.
    9. Lawyers often have little expertise in marketing and often hire marketers that have little expertise in layering.

    I’ve spent 20 years in sales and marketing before I spent 22 years layering. While I noticed many similarities I’ve also noticed many unique differences. For one, a court would call a sales mans exaggerations and omissions “puffery” a state bar would and should call the same conduct from a lawyer an ethical violation. In reading most lawyer advertising I get the impression that they believe that they can say anything they want with impunity as long as they place the required state bar disclaimer at the bottom of their web page or ad. My assessment of most lawyer web pages is they they either have lost the plot or more likely never had the plot.

    Just as lawyers use “IRAC’ when writing a brief marketers use “AIDA’ for effective advertising. There is a distinction between marketing and advertising. Marketing includes everything you do to promote your practice from networking to advertising. Advertising is publishing a solicitation in some media source for hues purpose of having someone purchase your goods or service.

    If you look at any good consumer advertisement you’ll recognize “AIDA” in the ad. It stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and finally Action. When I said most lawyers never had the plot I mean this: They don’t understand the point of an ad which is no more complicated than this – to make the phone ring – that’s all. After that to convert as many of those calls into appointments as possible. When they come in the office that’s the best opportunity to tell your story and sell your services.

    Here’s the dirty little secret about internet and yellow page ads: the good news is the closer to the first or top the more likely the ad will may get noticed – the bad news is at that point the reader is now using an elimination process to select who to call. All that stuff in your ad beyond, “I’m a damn good lawyer who you can trust and rely on” will more than likely get you eliminated rather than chosen. You need to resist the marketers who appeal to YOUR ego and hire the ones who appeal to the consumer’s needs. They have a legal problem they want your help to solve. Let them.

  21. SHG

    While your points are interesting, it’s unclear where they lead. Most legal marketers have forsaken any notions of ethical propriety in their services for lawyers, and lawyers have been foolishly willing to go with the program.  That puffery may violate the disciplinary rules is only the beginning: disciplinary rules reflect the worst we can do before we are sanctioned. Ethical (not to mention dignified) behavior isn’t defined as that which won’t result in discipline. We can, and should, do a bit better ethically than staying a step ahead of disbarment.

    A problem, once one gets on the marketing path, is the race for the bottom. One lawyer pays for SEO to get his mug on page 1 of Google, but so too do a thousand others. They can’t all be there, so each tries to outslime the others.

    What can most of us honestly, accurately and ethically say about ourselves to sell our wares? We’re good lawyers? Says who?  You can trust us? Says who? We care (about something other than your money)? Says who? Any moron can claim to be agressive, caring and trustworthy. Any moron can create marketing content that makes the worst lawyer appear to be Clarence Darrow. It just takes words, and they’re cheap. It even works for lawyers who don’t exist.

    So marketers create schemes that address the desires of potential clients. And we all look alike anyway, because what distiguishes us isn’t cheap words. What can distinguish lawyers are the ruses used to market falsely. While there is nothing to be said that makes us look beautiful, there is much that is said that reveals how ugly we are. That’s the message here.

  22. Catherine Mulcahey

    I recently looked online for information about someone who was disbarred here a couple of years ago. I found an AV rating.

  23. SHG

    He must be incredible to have an AV rating after he’s been disbarred. Or, M-H is not as credible as it wants us to believe it is.

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