My father-in-law, Boris, has driven a Philly cab for 30 years. He bought three taxi medallions—a sure bet, he thought, to secure retirement. Then Uber came. Then Lyft. Hailing a cab became as easy as pushing a cellphone button. His medallions are now worthless. He still drives but makes a fraction of his pre-Uber income. Lawyers beware: This sad story could happen to you.
The dangers of “Uberization” for routine legal tasks, from document preparation to document review to research, have been known for years. While Avvo recently closed its Avvo Legal Services, a service that provides fixed-fee, limited-scope legal services through a network of attorneys, this trend will continue. The Uberization of legal advertising, however, is a trend that gets little attention, but should get a lot more.
Most lawyers who want to start a firm or promote an existing small or medium-sized firm need to advertise their services. How does one get the word out? “Word of mouth” is becoming more and more passé as more and more people search for legal help online, a trend that will accelerate as millennials grow into adulthood. TV is expensive, so online is where most lawyers go.
But the online marketplace—the coveted Page 1 of Google—is already mostly taken. And it is taken not by lawyers, but by nonlawyers advertising “legal help,” then reselling potential clients’ information as leads to participating lawyers. You want to advertise? Pay them money.
Let’s take a few random examples. A search for “bankruptcy lawyer” yields ads by bankruptcyhome.com, a website run as a group advertisement by a firm called LeadRival, from Texas. It does not list any attorneys on its site, as required in Connecticut and elsewhere. Another player, Chapter7.com, run by NOLO, also comes up, as does Justia, a California-based provider of legal information and “leads.” These “lead-gen” sites are not run by lawyers but they compete for your potential clients both in the paid section of Google ads and in the organic search results, just as Uber competes with taxis.
Or try typing “estate lawyer.” That gets results for estateplanninglawfirms.com, which touts itself as “recommended” in Google paid ads. This is a NOLO lead-gen site. The next top result yields estate.unbundledlegalhelp.com, touting access to estate planning lawyers in any town near you. It uses geo-specific programming to create the impression that the ad is for a lawyer in your town. In fact, the site is run by Empowered Legal, LLC, a lead-gen company from California, owned by entrepreneurial nonlawyer types.
To be sure, in some fields such as personal injury, results yield primarily law firms, and Google Local listings—if managed properly—allow savvy firms to access some of internet marketplace. But you get the picture: a practicing lawyer who lacks the time, resources and substantial advertising experience cannot compete with tech and advertising-savvy lead generators.
These lead-gen businesses exist in broad daylight between the murky crevices of state and interstate lawyer regulation. Most state bars believe they lack authority to regulate legal web operators who are not themselves attorneys. Some state rules allow so-called group advertising, with restrictions, while others forbid it. Some states allow lead sales, while others, such as Connecticut (CGS 51-87), deem them a felony. While these divergent frameworks and rules might give ethics lawyers indigestion, lead-gen operators aren’t worried. They aren’t lawyers, they contend, and hence are not subject to the rules. On the criminal side, from what is available online, it does not appear that any attorneys general have brought any enforcement actions.
That leaves the civil enforcement through false advertisement claims under the Lanham Act and unfair trade practice laws. In fact, my firm recently brought a false advertising suit against a lead-gen company from Boston that advertises “100% Free Legal Consultation” but is—you guessed it—owned by nonattorneys. The case is in its beginning stages so it is too early to predict results.
This piece took a week to write in spurts and starts. In that time, I received two unsolicited inquiries from different lead-gen operators trying to sell leads to my firm. So this call is urgent. Time is short. Unless someone—the bar, the attorney general, or we as legal professionals—awaken to the danger, we too will be uberized, like Boris.
Ben Givon Baff Networks