Several bloggers are talking today about a blog post saying that FindLaw violated Google’s guidelines by selling links. That post accused FindLaw of scamming customers. My reaction was: Is this the pot calling the kettle black?
The blog post comes from a site called GetLawyerLeads.com. This is a company that creates shell lawyer Web sites and then sells the leads that come in from those sites to lawyers.
Consider one of the company’s sites, Maryland Criminal & DUI Defense Lawyer. A consumer in need of a criminal-defense lawyer who comes to this site would find reassurance. “I understand the tremendous stress you are feeling. … I can help,” the site’s front page says. It goes on:
“That’s what I do. I fight for people facing criminal charges in Maryland. I know that even a minor misdemeanor charge can have serious life consequences. A criminal record is no joke. And a felony conviction can be absolutely devastating to you and your family.”
Sounds like just the kind of advocate you want on your side, right? So who is this lawyer? Click on the About Me link at the bottom of the page, and all you get is a notice, “Lawyer Bio coming soon.” The rest of the text on the About Me page is no longer singular but now plural, suggesting that this is a firm of multiple lawyers. It says:
“We go to all Maryland Criminal courts, district courts and circuit courts, to fight charges on behalf of our clients. We firmly believe in the principle of innocent until proven guilty, and we will fight using every defense tactic available. Our clients are important to us, and we take pride in helping people who are facing the wrath of our Maryland criminal justice system.”
Search high and low through this site, and you will not find the name of a Maryland lawyer. What you do find is a copyright notice for a Massachusetts lawyer, Russell Matson, and for Criminal Lawyer Web Site Marketing a search-engine marketing and lead-generation company run by his brother, David Matson. The Matsons also operate the aforementioned GetLawyerLeads.com. You will find no mention of it on the Maryland site, but it points to the Maryland site as one of several available to attorneys interested in purchasing client leads. Here is the company’s pitch to lawyers:
“What we offer is a bottom line, direct, economical, and low risk solution to this problem. We have web sites that are generating leads and inquiries from people facing criminal charges. We resell you the leads, generally on a month to month basis, based on historical numbers of leads generated in a particular market.
“The beauty of buying leads directly is that is a simple, measurable business transaction. It can easily be an add on to your other marketing efforts. If you have the capacity for more business, and can do so profitably, then it is basically a no-brainer.”
The FAQ includes this about the leads that come in:
“When I call someone back, how should I describe my connection to your website?
“Whatever works for you. You can say it is one of your websites, or you have a marketing or affiliate arrangement with us. Whatever is simplest and you feel comfortable with.”
The GetLawyerLeads site lists sites similar to the Maryland one also offered in Connecticut, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas. The High Steppin’ Searches site lists several more such sites operating in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Virginia, Missouri, Georgia, North Carolina and California.
For a consumer, the bottom line is this: It walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, but it’s not a duck. A consumer visiting this site would have every reason to believe it is the site of a lawyer in Maryland who does criminal defense work — especially with its first-person assurances, “I understand … I can help.” But a consumer who sends an e-mail or dials the number is instead sent through these companies to lawyers who have paid to receive these leads. The “I” who is providing these reassurances is not a single, real person, but bait to attract potential clients.
So the very company that is accusing FindLaw of running a scam is running a shell game of its own. Is this unethical? I am not an expert in ethics but I would refer you to this ABA page on the ethics of online referral services. But I do think that the sites are misleading to consumers, and that fact alone causes me concern.