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The Evil Side Effect of Lawyer Advertising: More Consumer Information

The proliferation of lawyer websites, law firm websites, lawyer blogs and even LinkedIn profiles have literally exploded the amount of information available to consumers of legal services.  There has been a steady debate about whether or not lawyer blogs constitute lawyer advertising and how the advertising rules impact law firm websites which often include testimonials, a listing of favorable results and representative clients.  Within the LinkedIn community, clients can provide recommendations to the lawyers they’re connected to.  Clients sometimes brag about their lawyers on bulletin board systems and even on their own websites. 

I got in a debate the other day with a lawyer who believed that all of the above forms of information were unethical and constituted impermissible lawyer advertising.  This lawyer’s view is that no lawyer should allow to have anything except a web page including your name, address and phone number.  What a crock!

Anyone that would suggest that consumers were better off before the advent of the Internet in shopping for legal services is smoking crack.  Anyone who’s worked in a law firm knows that the vast majority of clients walk in the door with absolutely no prior experience with attorneys, law firms, and in many instances legal services in general.  Before the Internet, they were placed completely at the mercy of the lawyer sitting across the big fancy table.  In that, “face-to-face” meeting, the chance that a consumer could escape without first paying a hefty retainer fee was slim to none.  Even in matters in which the lawyer had no expertise, they could always sound smart enough to land the client.

In the Internet age, a client and virtually every possible legal matter can go to the Internet and educate themselves concerning the basic legal principles involved, review lawyer websites which explain the key elements, compare law firms through the information on their websites located all across the state, the country or the world.  They can make calls and get free consultations from many different law firms before making a decision; providing the client with a variety of different fee options.

Of course, this doesn’t even begin to touch on the amount of pro bono information that is provided by every lawyer who blogs, providing scores of individuals who cannot afford any legal services in-depth information in order to engage in legal self-help. 

I’ve always believed that there are really two classes of potential clients who might review information on the Internet.  The first are injury clients who are often vulnerable.  The second is everyone else.  Most of whom are looking for legal advice regarding business, real estate and other matters which do not imply vulnerability.  The concept that business people can be deceived by law firm websites which include a representative list of sample cases is laughable.  The anti-advertising contingent builds its argument on the foundation that legal consumers are fundamentally stupid.  I believe that most of that contingent is simply trying to avoid having to compete.  They would prefer it if there were no ready options available to clients and virtually no information from which a perspective client can educate themselves.  I believe it is the ethical duty of every lawyer to provide information concerning their practice, areas of specialization, representative cases and results.  They should be obligated to provide information concerning the fee options and billing policies.  Legal consumers win as information about lawyers and law firms proliferate, whether self-generated by the law firms and lawyers themselves or as commentary by other people.  The people who contact our law firm are overwhelmingly smart, intelligent consumers who have contacted several law firms, educated themselves about the legal issue they are facing and ask all the right questions prior to retention.

Comments

John D.

I couldn't agree more. The great thing about your blogs, and blogging in general, is that they recognize the value of "free." It may not mean much to a lot of older clients, but the ability to provide clients with something of value before they enter a relationship with your firm is something that is going to be very important to the attraction and retention of future, younger clients. There is a great article on this by Chris Anderson in Wired.

It's upsetting for a guy like me, who has a history in the ethics field and is just getting into the legal business, to see the anti-competitive effects of the ethics rules. Information asymmetry, in my opinion, is one of the reasons clients hate lawyers. They get the idea into their head that lawyers are using an informational advantage to overcharge them--an ignorance fee if you will. These blogs, and even extranets, promote disclosure and openness with clients. The are a great first step at reconciling the legal practice with clients.

There are so many things out there right now that are prohibited by the prophylactic rules that could potentially drive the cost of legal services down. For example, referral codes. There is an army of niche groups on the internet, topic-specific forums etc., that would jump at the chance to make a 10% return on legal services. Banner ads are another area that could be worthwhile. But if you have to submit an ad to the state bar every time you see a niche target it is completely counterintuitive. Certainly we should be concerned with deception. But why not hold us to the same First Amendment standards as other commercial speech?

In my opinion, the bar hasn't recognized the importance of network effects. If we can spread the cost of services across a wide range of clients through new media advertising, isn't that a net good? It's good for clients because it lowers costs, its good for attorneys because it makes it rain at a very low cost, and its good for society because reconnects lawyers to clients on more even and fully disclosed terms.

Just as unfortunate is the wide breadth of the unauthorized practice of law statutes. Blogging law students want to give general statements of the law that create SEO value, niche expertise, and name recognition, but at the same time they have to tread that fine line between general statements and "legal practice," even if they disclose that they aren't lawyers. It's a rough world for those that don't want to take the old firm route. A meritocracy is a noble goal, but its intended effects are best achieved through the marketplace, the swift punishment of specific bad behavior, and the promotion of innovation.

As you can see this is a problem that is very close to my heart. :)

Enrico S.

Great comment John. Competition is the heart of our economic system. Competition starts with information - an informed consumer. Post-internet, consumers can leverage price among lawyers who specialize in a practice area. Lawyers must be aware of price and quality, and must sell both. Lawyers marketing price and quality and inclined to create and deliver price and quality.

Pre-internet, there was very little competition, except among large law firm and sophisticated large clients. Everyone else ended up with the lawyer of whatever door they walked in first.

I can tell you first hand that clients who find us through our web site are smarter about their options, their legal issue and their market leverage (they typically contact multiple firms because it is so easy to do so) than anyone I signed up at any brick and mortar firm.

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