On The Continuing Thunderous Suckitude of Legal Marketing
Against our better judgment, my firm pays a significant amount of money to be listed with various attorney directories. When I began practice the primary point of this payment was to be listed in large, dusty, heavy things that were called "books"; companies like Martindale-Hubbell and Thomson-West made you pay though the nose to be included. Now the primary point seems to be getting your name and information into their online directories; I haven't seen one of the physical directories in a decade.
We'd tell these companies to piss off if the only benefit were being listed on directories which people can search to find a lawyer. But, regrettably, there's another lingering purpose: some old-school lawyers, from firms to in-house counsel, believe that you're not a real lawyer if you aren't listed in Martindale or Thomson-Reuters-West-MSNBC-TMZ or whatever the hell it's called this week. Thus even when a case might come in the door through rational channels — like a personal referral — if your name isn't in the blasted proprietary databases, some will conclude you must be a hack with a mail-order degree running your firm out the back of a bait shop.
So we pay the money, and we grit our teeth. It's effectively a guild fee or a payoff to a corrupt local official.
But surely, you might say, having your firm listed in Martindale or Thomson-Disney-Hustler-West-Nickolodeon brings in clients? No. It brings in potential clients, clients who have not heeded my advice that you should never cold-call lawyers picked out of the digital yellow pages if you can possibly avoid it. The vast majority of them are completely unsuitable as clients. Most fall into familiar categories:
1. People who want us to sue someone to get the microchips out of their head;
2. People who want us to sue their last lawyer, who fell down on the job on suing the lawyer before that, who fell down on the job on suing the lawyer before that, who may or may not have been hired to get microchips out of their head;
3. People who want to sue based on things that happened decades ago — like the person who wanted to sue a major metropolitan newspaper for a article printed during the G.H.W. Bush Administration which described an anonymous woman she thinks was meant to be her;
4. People who want us to take, on a contingency basis, plainly meritless cases against people who are on public assistance;
5. People who want to sue for defamation based on nasty things said about them that nobody heard and that did not result in them losing any job, benefits, property, or reputation;
6. People who want to sue doctors because they believe that, if their surgery did not transform their middle-aged bodies into Olympic-quality artworks, their doctor must have been incompetent;
7. People who are convinced of legal propositions that have no place in the law, or reality, and will scream at you if you do not agree with them;
8. People who want pro-bono criminal representation;
9. People who want to pay you $500 to get a twenty-year-old life sentence overturned, because "it's so clear and outrageous that what they did isn't right";
10. People who just want to talk to someone.
That's what Martindale and Thomson deliver. If I counted up the actual, paying clients we've gotten from the Martindale and Thomson listings, I think they've brought in less in gross revenue than those listings have cost.
The cost is not just the annual price of a listing. It's time. I tend to field all cold calls to the firm — at least for criminal and litigation practices. I do that to maintain quality control, to manage the firm's public face, to keep other employees doing real work, and to avoid more expenditure of time down the road (which you get if someone who can't issue-spot takes the call and sets up an in-person consult). I try to be polite, I try to be respectful (even to the assholes who won't let me finish a sentence or think they should be instructing me on what the law is based on what they see on TV), and I try to be constructive when I turn them down ("you might want to look for a smaller firm, or a solo, that could do such a case economically" or "you should rethink the impact the Streisand Effect might have on your proposed defamation case" or "you should try to find a doctor who will give you an opinion about whether or not you've actually gotten improper treatment"), and (as a crazy person myself) I try to be merciful to the crazy people. Often, not always, I succeed in these goals. But I spend an immense amount of non-billable time managing these calls (not to mention the time I spend deflecting legal marketers, who flock to Martindale and Thomson listings like flies to shit). It pisses me off that I have to do that for the privilege of being listed in various directories that some folks still think are essential to credibility.
It would be nice to think that the need for such listings will fade with new technology. But the incessant hum of legal marketing drivel is prolonging the life of the Martindales and Thomsons, not mercifully terminating them. The hype about web sites and social media and blog-marketing and the like continues to promote the idea that lawyers should be found — and judged — not based on the quality of their work and their reputation with people who actually know it, but based on their prominence in Google search results. This bullshit. You're not looking for the cheapest Blu-Ray player. You have to look for lawyers by seeking reliable referrals; if you get a decent lawyer through online searches, it will be by luck.
We'll have to change more attitudes of referral sources before we can stop paying the shakedown money.
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