All posts by Josh King

Ethics & Competitive Keyword Advertising

It sounds unethical:

  1. “Buy” the name of your competitor from Google.
  2. When potential clients search Google for that competitor, your ad appears.
  3. Profit!!

Lawyers seem to think so, too.  There was the Milwaukee PI firm of Habush Habush & Rottier, which sued a competitor for doing this. The North Carolina State Bar issued an ethics opinion putting a kibosh on the practice. And now “The Hammer” – the Texas Firm of Jim Adler & Associates – has weighed in, asking that Texas also find competitive keyword advertising unethical.

Of course, they’re all wrong.

Habush found this out, after spending several hundred thousand dollars losing their lawsuit.

North Carolina should have found out, after watching even ad-restrictive Florida reverse course and withdraw a proposed opinion barring the practice.

And Adler et al will find out as well, as I expect the Texas Bar will leave them hanging.

Habush competitive keyword ad 2

Here’s why: look at this competitive ad for the search term “Habush.” There’s absolutely nothing deceptive or misleading about the ad. There’s no “likelihood of confusion” and no trademark infringement. In fact, the search engines have ad rules that affirmatively prevent advertisers from using the competitor’s name in the ad. So all that happens is that a consumer searching for a firm by name also sees an ad for a competitor. Fundamentally, that’s no different than traditional “proximity advertising” – buying a billboard across the street from your competitor, or a yellow pages ad on the opposite page.

And that’s a GOOD THING – because we should favor giving consumers more information when choosing a lawyer, rather than giving lawyers a competition-free channel for online name searches.

Another Blogger Disciplined

I’m always quick to encourage blogging to those lawyers who love to write; I strongly believe it makes you a better lawyer – and one who is more professionally fulfilled to boot. It may even help generate business, but that is a long game.

But it’s not without risk to the unwary. Your blog may be overly promotional. It may reveal client confidences – even if you try to conceal them.

Or you may, as Illinois attorney Joanne Denison did, go on a rip against the local judiciary, and have sanctions recommended for abusing the judges a bit too harshly.

It’s true that attorneys have fairly wide latitude under the First Amendment to criticize judges (see my “Criticism of Judges” page for more details). But when that criticism totters over the line into defamation, the attorney making the criticism is fair game for bar action.

The facts in the Denison case are complicated, and it’s difficult to tell whether the attorney’s complaints about judicial corruption really meet the test for “public figure” defamation (meaning they must be made maliciously or with reckless disregard for the truth). But the takeaway here, as with most cases of judicial criticism, is that care and diligence are in order when taking judges to task.

Also, because I am regularly railing on attorney regulators for disregarding the free speech rights of attorneys, I must note this: the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission did an exemplary job of parsing the First Amendment issues in rendering their decision. I can’t say for sure that the facts support their conclusion, but at least the IARDC fully considered the constitutional dimensions.

h/t Kevin O’Keefe

On “Defamation”

As lawyers who represent consumers know, the wave of public opinion spilling online via client reviews can be a bit, well, upsetting. Legal services are the fruit of the brow, and often tied up closely in a lawyer’s self-identity. Having someone post an online tirade hits very close to home.

Of course, there’s no reason that legal practices should be held to a different standard than other sorts of businesses, most of which have adapted to – and even improved themselves by virtue of – the world of online user reviews.

And as I tell lawyers, it’s really important to get an objective read on a negative review before flipping out and filing a defamation lawsuit. This isn’t just because there are some unique risks to filing defamation suits not found in most other causes of action. Rather, it’s that lawyers aggrieved by negative client reviews aren’t usually the best judges of whether they actually have an actionable claim.

For example, let’s say a client writes this about you:

She is the most unethical, incompetent lawyer you’ll ever come across. I wouldn’t even call her a lawyer, she’s a FRAUD.

Being on the receiving end of that would feel bad, right? But it’s not defamatory; it’s simply a hyperbolic statement of opinion. Contrary to seemingly widespread belief, “defamation” isn’t “something that someone wrote about me online that I don’t like.” It must be based on a materially false statement of fact.

Of course, since I’m writing about this, you know what happened: the attorney who received the review above – Texas immigration lawyer Sherin Thawer – sued the reviewer.

What makes this noteworthy isn’t just that a thin-skinned attorney filed a baseless defamation claim. It’s not even that she did so in Texas, where the presence of one of the nation’s strongest anti-SLAPP laws means that she’s most likely going to be paying the defendant’s attorney’s fees.

No, the irony here is that the reviewer may have, if anything, gone light on Thawer. Because according to this report, she lied to her client, allowing him to be ruled against in absentia and subjected to a deportation order. Now the Texas disciplinary authorities are going after her for additional sanctions (she is already suspended from the practice of law in Texas).

I don’t know about you, but that would rate a scathing review in my book.

On “Lawyer Referral Services”

One limitation on lawyer advertising, found in ABA Model Rule 7.2(b)(2) and the rules of nearly every state bar, is the prohibition on anything but bar-sanctioned “lawyer referral services.”

What’s a “lawyer referral service?”  It’s a service that refers consumers to lawyers.  Duh.

But why would that be a problem?  Attorneys have a right to advertise, after all.  How does a “lawyer referral service” differ from say, buying Google AdWords or banner advertising on a local news website?

To understand the basis of this disconnect – and that of many other problems with attorney advertising regulation – we have to go back to the Bars’ grudging acceptance of Bates v. Arizona, the 1977 decision in which the Supreme Court first found that attorneys have a right to advertise. Instead of scrapping the prohibition on unsanctioned “lawyer referral services” along with the rest of the advertising prohibitions that the Supreme Court found unconstitutional in Bates, the Bars just kept all of the prohibitions in place – but appended a little sotto voce exception allowing advertising.  So now, nearly 40 years on, attorneys have to parse the distinction between permitted advertising and prohibited “lawyer referral services.”

Unsurprisingly, this creates confusion.

Some attorneys and bar regulators consider a “lawyer referral service” to be any form of advertising in which the attorney pays for advertising on a per-lead or per-client basis.  If the attorney is paying the referring party for each client or potential client that is sent their way, it’s a referral program.  Which is prohibited, unless it’s non-profit and approved by the Bar.

This kind of rationale is one attorneys are well-known for: the exaltation of form over substance.  Sure, you can say the attorney is paying for each referral.  And sure, the bar rules still prohibit unsanctioned “lawyer referral services.”  So there’s that.

But go back to Bates, and there’s also this: attorneys have a first amendment right to advertise.  Paying for advertising on a per-lead or per-client basis is just a more efficient way of buying marketing.  How do we square that with prohibitions on lawyers participating in “lawyer referral services?”

A “lawyer referral service” can’t simply be whatever the bar says it is. The commercial speech doctrine tells us that restrictions on advertising must be narrowly-tailored to mitigate against real, non-speculative harms. What harm is being addressed by the prohibition on lawyer referral services?  Surely not the efficient deployment of legal marketing budgets.

Rather, as Kentucky Bar Ethics Opinion E-429 does a particularly good job of pointing out, the prohibition against lawyer referral services is intended to guard against consumer deception. Shady lawyer referral services operate by making the consumer believe that their legal issue is being vetted, and that they are being sent to the appropriate attorney for their needs – when in fact they are simply being sent to whichever attorney is next in the rotation, or has purchased the exclusive rights to all leads in their area. 1

Modern performance-based advertising programs may superficially look like referral programs (in that lawyers are paying per-referral or per-client), but they are missing, crucially, that which made the shady old lawyer referral programs a problem: consumer deception. Consumers who click on a Google AdWords ad or get connected to the first available attorney through Avvo Advisor aren’t being conned into thinking their cases are being screened and they are getting an attorney hand-picked for their specific needs. Rather, these consumers are simply responding to a form of attorney advertising that has tied the marketing fee much closer to actual performance.

Ultimately, the restriction on lawyer referral services could be safely stricken from the Rules of Professional Conduct, as the general prohibition on false and misleading advertising would cover any such practices that deceive consumers.  As it stands, this is a rule that simply acts as a drag on attorneys participating fully in performance-based marketing – which ultimately comes at a cost to the consumers that the advertising rules are intended to protect.

Notes:

  1. Which begs the question of why the bar’s own referral programs should pass muster, but that’s a question for another day.

Regulate or Permit?

As someone who has worked in tech for nearly my entire career, it’s natural for me to think a lot about innovation. Innovation – or at least the aspiration to innovate – runs in the veins of any successful technology company. It’s what leads to breakthrough growth, opens up new markets, provides new answers to old problems, and makes the leading companies wildly successful.

But here’s the thing: we lawyers aren’t the most comfortable around innovation.  We’re trained to respect precedent.  It’s a principle that’s great for stability, but it doesn’t lend to our being drivers of rapid change.  And that’s OK to a point – the role of the lawyers is, in many cases, to be the voice of caution in the room, the one highlighting the potential risks and problems that shiny innovations can leave in their wake.

Unfortunately, our profession is also possessed of another tendency that’s actively harmful to innovation – our regulatory bias.  Because we are trained in drafting and interpreting rules, we lawyers have a tendency toward addressing problems and uncertainties by creating rules. 1

This regulatory bias, in combination with our backward-looking emphasis on risks, acts as a very real brake on innovation.  This manifests itself in the widespread favoring by lawyers of what’s known as the “precautionary principle:” the idea that the best way to handle changes and new developments is carefully and cautiously, with rules and regulations governing the acceptable parameters of such changes.

The trouble with the regulatory bias is that it offers only the illusion of control.  Prophylactic regulation of new technology almost always prevents the benefits of such technology from being fully realized.  It slows things down.  Sometimes that’s OK.  It can be a useful brake on concepts that are getting ahead of themselves.  But such regulation frequently leads to unforeseen, negative consequences – consequences which are sometimes far more significant than the theoretical harm the regulation was intended to prevent. 2

But as Adam Thierer argues persuasively in his book Permissionless Innovation, there’s an alternate model to the lawyerly reflex to regulate new technology. Under Thierer’s model, the default is instead to be hands-off, letting things develop with a minimum of regulation – at least until (and unless) such regulation proves to be necessary. This model requires that lawyers do something that may feel a bit unnatural, which is step back from their role as rule-makers and wait for firm evidence that rules are needed before restricting new technology.

Permissionless innovation requires acknowledging the hard truth behind regulation: no matter how noble its ends, it is often wholly ineffective – and it often produces unanticipated consequences to boot. 3 Yes, sometimes it succeeds. And sometimes we are willing to accept a fair dose of imperfection and high cost because the choice of not regulating is even worse.

However, this is rarely the case with new innovations. Are there risks to holding off and letting innovation flourish, free of regulation?  Of course.  But it defies the history of regulation to assume that regulators can deftly avoid those risks, optimize the benefits of innovation, and also keep any unanticipated consequences from popping up.

And to bring this full circle to the subject of this blog – permissionless innovation is a mindset that can be applied to many areas even outside of technology. As I’ve argued many times before, the sprawling pages of lawyer advertising regulation do far more harm than good. In attempting to address any number of potential marketing techniques and theoretical harms, the rules only succeed in keeping consumers uninformed about legal services. The vast majority of actual consumer harm from lawyer advertising could be addressed through a simple rule prohibiting false and deceptive advertising.

My railing against precautionary regulation isn’t a political point, or an objection on principle to ALL government regulation, which is often necessary and sometimes effective. It’s simply a reminder that we as lawyers, instead of rushing in to propose new rules, should regularly pause and reflect whether the better course isn’t to simply let things play out.

Because a great deal of the time, it’s going to be.

Notes:

  1. If you’ve even been in a fantasy football league run by lawyers, you’ll know what I mean.
  2. There are many, many examples, but this article from the Freakonomics guys is a good place to start.
  3. These realities are documented exhaustively and persuasively by Yale law professor Peter Schuck in his recent book, Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better.

Lawyer, be Interesting

MIMITW slip and fallAt a recent talk, a young lawyer asked what lawyers in competitive practice areas (he, I later learned, was a PI lawyer) could do to stand out from the competition.One answer – an answer that might seem obvious, if it weren’t one that so many lawyers could benefit from – is to do outstanding work.

By this I don’t mean just the stay-up-late-and-aggressively-and-competently-represent type of doing outstanding work.  That’s table stakes, even if far too many lawyers don’t get that far.

What I mean is staying fully invested with, and available to, the client.  Being responsive to their concerns.  Attuned to their level of risk tolerance. Over-communicating.  And being completely willing to tell them the hard truths they need to hear – which they will (usually) process and understand, if you’ve done all of the above.  Attorneys who do all of that, consistently, will yield a bounty of referral business from grateful clients.

But that’s not the answer I gave.

In many competitive areas, you’ve got to do even more than provide consistently outstanding work for your clients.  You’ve got to be . . . interesting. You need to have a personality.

This doesn’t come naturally for most lawyers. Hell, it doesn’t come naturally for me. We lawyers are risk adverse, and being interesting means taking a stand on something, having opinions, being loud, being polarizing.  It means putting ourselves out there, exposing ourselves a little bit, risking the possibility that some people will disagree with us and perhaps even not like us.

This doesn’t mean you’ve got to stake out extreme positions; it just means that you’ve got to be more transparent.  Staid-and-boring doesn’t cut it any longer.  The internet and social media open up so much opportunity for attorneys to show who they really are and connect with clients and referral sources at a relationship level.  So trumpet those organizations you’re involved with, even at the risk of alienating a portion of the community.  Don’t hesitate to talk about your interests or what you’re doing in the community, even if it has nothing whatsoever to do with the practice of law.

People want to connect with real people.  And while they want their lawyers to be bullets on the competency front, they also want them to be real people they can relate to, laugh with, or even have a drink with.

Sometimes, Occasionally, Regulation is OK

As frequent readers of Socially Awkward know, I often rail against regulation. Usually lawyer speech regulation, but there are parallels across the regulatory board.  It’s not that regulation is inherently evil; it’s just that so much regulation is ineffective and counterproductive.

So I’ll admit to having some mixed feelings when President Obama came down hard in favor of regulating the internet as a utility under the FCC’s Title II authority, in order to preserve net neutrality.  I mean, when the regulator-in-chief calls strongly for more regulation, it usually helps to check your wallet.

But here’s the thing: this is one of those instances where regulation is necessary.  I’d go into more detail on why (and having spent virtually my entire professional career working in telecom and internet companies, I have some perspective on the issue from both sides), but Mike Masnick at Techdirt wrote a fantastic post a few months back that really gets to the heart of it.

You should read the whole thing, but the short story is that access to the internet is a natural monopoly – there are only a handful of companies that can provide the infrastructure for the internet.  And natural monopolies are as much the enemy of innovation and consumer choice as overbearing government regulation can be (as any customer of Comcast can tell you!).

As those who have worked in telecom know, this infrastructure level, where connections are made, sites built, etc. has always been heavily regulated.  It needs to be, because the companies involved are often the only game in town, and overall, it’s worked.  Trouble arises when the regulation gets into rates, terms of service or preservation of regulated monopolies. And that’s precisely the sort of regulation that Obama is calling for the FCC to forbear from (i.e., not do) as part of reclassifying the internet as a Title II utility.

So – regulation of internet infrastructure, including guaranteeing there are none of the toll roads or fast lanes envisioned by the ISPs.  But non-regulation of consumer experience and services that ride over the internet, enabling the fantastic innovation that the internet has engendered to continue to thrive.

In the months to come, critics from many corners will characterize this as “regulating the internet.”  It’s a dog whistle message to many, because it would be bad indeed if the government tried to regulate content and services that flow over the internet.  But this is only regulation of the internet’s plumbing. And it’s necessary – as regulation sometimes is – to keep the handful of natural monopolists who control those pipes from slowing down the pace of online innovation and expression.

Email Awkwardness

If you’ve been practicing law for more than 20 years, you will recall the hand-wringing over the advent of email. Too informal, too insecure, couldn’t be trusted with client information, etc. But the voices of lawyerly caution never had much of a chance; email was simply too effective, too widely adopted. People and businesses far and wide plowed ahead with using it, and the concerns of the lawyers were shunted to the wayside.

Since that time, the vast majority of lawyers have become adept at using email. Sure, there are still too many disclaimers, and many lawyers have retained the practice of attaching letters to an email when the email itself would do just fine. But still – as a profession, we’re good with email as a tool.

But sometimes we still can’t figure out how to use it.

Case in point – the fawning email sent by Randall Rader – the Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals – to Edward Reines, a patent lawyer at Weil Gotshal & Manges who often appeared before the court.
Rader Email to ReinesThe email, as you can see, lauds Reines’ abilities, and invites him to share the judge’s praise with others. Had Reines done the usual thing – smiled, sent the judge back a personal thank you, and filed away or deleted the email – there would be nothing to see here. Instead – because even white shoe Biglaw partners have to hustle for a buck – Reines forwarded the email to dozens of clients and potential clients, using it as a platform for selling his services.

As one might expect, this didn’t go well. When news of the email surfaced back in May, Rader quickly stepped down from his role as Chief Judge.  His message came at a particularly bad time for the Federal Circuit, which has been facing increasing criticism (not to mention Supreme Court reversals) for being far too cozy with the patent bar.

And now Reines has been reprimanded by the Federal Circuit, for violating Model Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(e), which prohibits stating or implying the ability to influence a government official.

I think, as Reines unsuccessfully argued, that this is going too far. The email reveals that at least one Federal District court judge (and several others by implication) is very impressed with the quality of Reines’ work.  And as I have written about before, praise from judges is valuable as a marketing tool precisely because of its scarcity value.  Indeed, Rader’s encouraging Reines to broadcast the email acknowledges the rarity of this kind of praise.

The court, in applying the discipline, focused on Rader’s references to his friendship with Reines, and the fact that other parts of Reines’ marketing communications referred to his stature in the court and knowledge of the judges.  The court seized on these factors as somehow being distinct from advocacy skills (because being an effective advocate is completely separate from having credibility and knowing the judges well enough to know which sorts of arguments resonate with them?), and also somehow being indicative of a nefarious intent to unduly influence the judges.

Had he to do it over, I’m sure Reines would have chosen a different approach.  But there shouldn’t be a professional discipline penalty for crowing that the head judge of the court where you do most of your work thinks you’re the cat’s pajamas.  Reines should have a first amendment right to let people – including potential clients – know how well-regarded he is by the court.  Those potential clients can then choose for themselves whether it feels like too much of “look how special I am!”

Ethical Marketing Techniques

I’m speaking this Wednesday night at the Beverly Hills Bar Association; the topic is “Ethical Marketing Techniques for Solos and Small Firms.”

If you can’t make it (and I’d love to see any Socially Awkward readers there!), here are the basic points I’m going to cover:

  • Staying on the right side of the Rules of Professional Conduct when communicating online is actually pretty easy – as long as you treat social media as more analogous to a cocktail party than, say, a billboard ad.
  • Any attorney remotely concerned about generating business – whether online or offline, consumer or business – is failing massively if they haven’t created at least three separate places online where potential clients can find information about them and their approach to the practice of law.
  • Reputation management is becoming more and more important as “word of mouth” moves online.  Whether you like it or not, legal services can and will be reviewed, just as toasters and hotel stays are.  Understanding how to respond to negative online feedback in a productive way is critical.

It bears mentioning that it remains harder than it should be for lawyers to “stay ethical” when it comes to advertising. I’ve written about some of the reasons why, but I will likely pen a longer post in the near future on the problems created by our lawyerly bias toward regulation.

7 Years at Avvo

I just realized that today, October 29, is my 7-year anniversary at Avvo.  It’s also fully a third of my career so far, and represents the longest time I’ve spent with a single employer.

You’d think a lot would change over that period of time, and you wouldn’t be wrong.  Avvo has gone from a concept (a concept facing a company-threatening class action at the time I was hired) to the market leader in consumer legal information and guidance.  We’ve also:

  • Grown from 20 to over 200 employees
  • Gone from an attorney rating to a force that drives hundreds of thousands of consumer contacts to lawyers every month
  • Moved from nominal revenue to profitability

But some things don’t change.  The job remains great fun; it’s challenging and offers something new every day.  And I work with terrific colleagues. 1  And then there are all of you attorneys.  I love you all! 2  Not only do you make my job possible, but you enrich it with all of the questions, comments and feedback.  Even all of the legal theories about how we’re doing something wrong.  Thanks for everything – especially keeping me on my toes!

Notes:

  1. Seriously – join our team; we’re hiring!
  2. OK, most of you.