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.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    On a Keynesian analysis, you could increase the value of the business "generated or saved" simply by investing heavily in even more directory listings!

  2. Turk says

    “you might want to look for a smaller firm, or a solo, that could do such a case economically”

    I usually tell them:

    “you might want to look for a larger firm that could do such a case economically”

  3. Mike says

    Do you get enough cases from cold calls that it's even worth taking them? One boss wouldn't even take cold calls. You didn't get to talk to him unless a lawyer he trusted gave you his #, or unless you paid him for an hour of his time. No website, either.

  4. PLW says

    You should list a wrong number in the directory. One digit would suffice, for plausible deniability.

  5. says

    My current estimate is one interesting call for every 1000 cold calls. But I can't tell you how much I enjoy fielding inquiries from people who "just have one question." I could do it all day long.

  6. says

    We have intake paralegals to weed out cases where there's plainly nothing there. It still ends up as a time suck in reviewing intakes, but not nearly as much.

    The only directory I've seen produce qualified leads is HG.org. Why? Beats me. Not a lot, but some. Comparatively cheap, too.

    Blogging about stuff that matters to the clients you want to represent can indeed generate work.

  7. eddie says

    We recently had a sales tax problem with a non-profit group we volunteer for. We cold-called a tax attorney whose website signaled competence.

    We had absolutely no idea what to do regarding the tax problem, and we were perfectly willing to pay for some in-person consultation just to get our bearings. The attorney we talked to on the phone (the attorney, not his assistant!) spent about ten minutes with us on the phone, determined that our problem was nothing to worry about, assured us that getting resolution in cases like ours was easy and routine, and told us what we would need to do in order to get it worked out ourselves. Gratis.

    While he's correct that it was pretty easy to get resolved following his recommendations, I know that we would not have been able to figure out what to do without spending those ten minutes on the phone with him (or someone else with the same specialized knowledge). Google was unhelpful, as were the government sales tax websites we visited and government employees we spoke with. So that ten minute phone call was extremely valuable to us. At the same time, the issue was simple enough (once you know what to do) that anything more than those ten minutes would have been a waste of his time – he practically said as much on the phone.

    That said, if anyone I know ever needs legal tax advice for something much more serious and time-consuming, I know who I'm going to recommend.

  8. Rich Rostrom says

    If I was a hack with a mail-order law degree from Pakistan, practicing out of the back of a massage parlor, could I get a listing in those directories if I paid the fee?

    If so, those directories serve no function at all.

    Do the listings include any information beyond name, firm name, and contact info (address, ph#, etc)? Is that information verified by the publisher?

    If not, those directories serve no function at all.

    Lawyers like yourself need to ask, when getting a referral or contact from an "old-school" lawyer, "Was this contact conditional upon my being listed in some law directory?" You might learn from this which directories are worth being listed in. You could also ask the contactor why they relied on the directory listing for validation, when it is available to anyone who pays the requisite fee.

  9. says

    Oh, hey! Someone just contacted me by email through Martindale-Hubbell to ask for free advice about a lottery ticket! I take it all back.

  10. AH says


    What type of law do you practice? Internet marketing?SEO is not important for biglaw type representation involving sophisticated corporate clients but is crucial for small-law practice involving indivuiduals as clients: By this I mean criminal, dui, divorce, personal injury, bankruptcy and the like.

    The general counsel of a F500 isn't going to hire you for an antitrust or patent case because you came up on Google page 1 as an "aggressive attorney". But some guy going through a divorce will call you.

    The attorney will then screen the calls to separate good cases from bullshit. That is what happenend to you with the tax attorney. The tax attorney's practice probably consists of spending a few minutes haggling with the IRS to reduce the lien and then closing the case. When you called him with a complex legal question that entails research (and risk to the tax attorney if he gives bad advice) he classifed you as "bullshit" (the same way you classified most of your internet client calls) and got rid of you quickly.

  11. says

    AH, that's a good point — the listings may be of some marginally greater utility for a higher volume, lower fee practice. We're a bit on the boutique end of things (doing criminal defense, internal investigations, and litigation, generally).

    But that doesn't stop the Martindales and Thomson-Reuters of the world from marketing themselves relentlessly to us. And, though your general counsel isn't going to hire us based on our Google hit, as I said in the post, if he's a certain age he's still going to look us up in Martindale-Hubbell and be put off if we're not there.

  12. says

    There is always the approach I take. Don't advertise and have an unlisted phone number. It cuts down on the "crank" calls, anyway, and for a one-man shop that is probably a good thing.