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The Truth, The Whole Truth and Legal Advertising On-line

Looking for the fastest way to find goods and services? Perhaps legal services, looking something technologically more advanced than the Yellow Pages? If you have ever tried the web, you know there is no telling what you might find. You might find exactly what you need, at a discount, or, you might even be surprised – and get something you don’t need, at substantial cost. If you are looking for information about lawyers on-line, you are in luck as there is certainly no shortage there. The number of law-related websites is now roughly 14,000 according to the Open Directory Project, an internet data tracking service. The majority of the million-plus lawyers in the US can now be found on-line. Whether this is advantageous is open to doubt but it certainly shows that lawyers have found a new medium for marketing. Just half a dozen years ago, lawyer web advertising was rare. However, lawyer advertising in traditional mediums has a much longer history Stateside.

Advertising and modesty have always been curious bed fellows. Indeed, it takes a certain amount of hype to make advertising recognizable as advertising. There is however something different about advertising on the web. The critical difference is that internet technology is way ahead of ethics rules. It is difficult to police the world of cyberspace. Stateside lawyer discipline and ethics has traditionally been the responsibility of the individual state bars of which there are 50, plus the District of Columbia. Most state bars do not have the resources and do not even attempt to monitor lawyers’ internet advertising. There is also a jurisdictional problem: because lawyers are regulated on a state by state basis, it is difficult to shut down far-flung cyber law offices.

For the internet user seeking to find a lawyer there is a lot of sifting through the fluff, flash, pomp and sometimes outright deceptiveness of internet advertising. Once you have located the legal services you seek (or think you seek) you still cannot be certain that what you see is what you will get. However, this is true of advertising whether on-line or off. With off-line advertising in more traditional medias (newspapers, radio and television) there are various advertising standards authorities and codes of practice. Which will normally be considered by the media company and may act as something of a filter. For on-line advertising, you can create your own advertising. Thus, one filter is the webmaster who has designed the site for you and perhaps, and this is a very big perhaps, the internet service provider who might review the content. The final filter is the attorney’s own conscience. This sometimes requires a bit of fine tuning. The result is that if it is too good to be true, it probably is! Also, and particularly on-line, you ought to try it before you buy it. But we lawyers have an old Latin term: Caveat Emptor, which translates “let the buyer beware”.

I decided to check out what can be truthfully said about lawyer advertising on-line, so I asked my research assistant, the net-savvy Aaron Golden, to research this matter. He found several types of on-line services relating to attorneys: legal advice, attorney and law firm directories, and actual attorney and law firm websites.

There are a variety law firm directories there are a variety of same. Perhaps the most prestigious, Martindale-Hubbell, recently reviewed its data collection process for its on-line version after being advised that it had listed some lawyers with a history of ethical problems. Other directories seem to have no such qualms. LawyerDepot.com will help you to “locate a high quality, ultra conscientious, consumer rated lawyer right here at Lawyer Depot”. It contrasts the Webster dictionary definition of a lawyer as a professional adviser and representative with the LawyerDepot lawyer which it defines as “the best handpicked consumer rated lawyers on the planet”. In order to qualify for a listing with LawyerDepot and an “A+” rating you need only pay your annual $399 fee. A spokesman for the company said it does not usually vet its members. Amongst new members listed in LawyerDepot is a California lawyer who in 1998, according to the Wall Street Journal Europe, completed a 42-month suspension in connection with a federal conviction for defrauding his ex-wife in a bankruptcy proceeding. There is no reference to this in the information provided by LawyerDepot. Despite the Wall Street Journal Europe’s January 16, 2001 article his name still appears on the website. A spokesman for LawyerDepot replied that this article “opened our eyes as to checking the criteria of lawyers”. He added that LawyerDepot has written this Californian lawyer but he has not responded.

Most individual law firm websites provide a lot of biographical data, information as to their areas of practice and purported expertise, and, of course, emphasise the positive. Some of America’s most celebrated and controversial lawyers are personal injury practitioners. The website of Kenneth B. Moll and Associates, Ltd. contains various articles about their founder’s career and current litigation including the well-known Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford Motor class action lawsuit (which was the subject matter of a prior article in this column). The website fails to mention that Kenneth Moll had been suspended by the Illinois bar regulators for pocketing fees which he was ethically obliged to share with certain of his former partners. The Chief Attorney for the Illinois lawyer disciplinary agency notes that lawyers and law firms with websites have an obligation to make sure that their sites are not misleading and to keep their clients fully informed. Mr. Moll advised the reporters for Wall Street Journal Europe that the complaint was “frivolous” and the website not misleading because the other attorneys in his firm were properly licensed. This is a tenuous lawyer-like response which reminds me of ex-President Clinton’s statement with regard to his relationship with Ms. Monica Lewinsky: “I never had sex with that woman”.

Aaron Golden’s conclusion was that most attorneys’ sites he visited were probably more boring than misleading. Lawyer advertising on the web does not have the intrinsic advantage that real estate advertising does where you can see pictures of the property you might wish to purchase and go on a virtual tour of same. The same comment could be made really of any professional service advertised on the web.

So, though the web can serve as a fast directory for legal services, still nothing beats a handshake and a few minutes in real-time to determine which attorney best suits you. It is perhaps ironic that the LawyerDepot.com website provides the following advice as part of its disclaimer: “Before hiring a lawyer, we recommend that you contact your State Bar and check the latest records that pertain to the lawyer or firm you are considering.”

California is now experimenting with an on-line system that prospective clients can use to check out whether an attorney has been publicly sanctioned for violating professional ethics rules (see www.califsb.org). That service might help you avoid an unethical lawyer. The difficult problem, that the internet leaves unanswered is how the hell to find a good lawyer?