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Paid Listings Complicate Search for Quality Lawyers Online

By Robertson Barrett

Consumers searching for a local lawyer, especially a specialist, may find little more than advertising-based listings and nothing resembling thoughtful advice online. More troubling: While some sites, like FindLaw.com, are legitimate, ad-supported directories, others – such as The BestLegalServices.com – collect personal information and fail to disclose who they are or where they’re sending your data. The result can be unwanted phone or e-mail contact from a number of law firms, with no way to stop it.

So many lawyers are now online that an entire ecosystem of referral Web sites now exists – not just firms’ own sites, but thousands of fee-based listings sites like OnlineAttorneyFinder.com, searchable Web versions of legal “bibles” like the West Legal Directory, and a few lawyer referral services like LegalMatch.com. Of the sites that dominate search-engine results pages, only the professional directories – such as West’s FindLaw.com – offer neutral listings of attorneys in a given ZIP code. And when consumers want to know more, the deeper profiles on even these sites are often – surprise – sponsored and provided by the law firms themselves.

“A lot of this is like the Yellow Pages – attorneys just pay money and advertise,” says Donald Breer, senior compliance coordinator of Lawyer Referral Services for the State Bar of California.

But while the mass-migration online could be a boon for consumers – most sites let users find lawyers in their own ZIP code, for instance – regulatory officials worry very few services have incentive to let consumers know the good, the bad and the ugly about the lawyers they might hire.

Paying for Play

“We’re trying to provide a site where consumers can compare information side by side,” says Michael S. Lubofsky, president of The Lawz Inc., an Oakland, CA, online marketing firm that charges attorneys $199 a year to be listed on OnlineAttorneyFinder.com. “A lot of law firms are now incorporating this type of marketing into the nuts and bolts of their operations.”

Lubofsky, a lawyer, runs a small empire of attorney listing sites out of his home office. There are MegaFirms.com and findlawyer.us – sites with clickable U.S. maps and state-by-state listings very similar to OnlineAttorneyFinder.com’s. He says lawyers pay again to be listed on his regional sites – lawyersintexas.com, bay-arealawyers.com, and so on. He also ran a Weblog in which the public could rate lawyers listed online (one to five stars), but Lubofsky discontinued it when attorneys balked. “They don’t want to be rated,” he says.

Why all these sites? Because different sites show up in different Web searches, and legal marketers like Lubofsky make it their business to have at least one site pop up on the first page of search results when querying common legal terms (such as “lawyers” or “immigration law”). While a single law firm in Texas is unlikely to pay Yahoo to appear prominently every time a Web user queries “find a lawyer,” marketers create their own, more general sites that include such law firms. Then they pay search engines for top placements.

This is where things can get confusing for consumers who just want to find a good lawyer in the neighborhood: To entice users to click on them, sites promise a useful service – often, a “lawyer locator” – and operators of competing sites run by legal information publishers argue there’s no way of ensuring a no-name site offers accurate information or will steer consumers to lawyers with good performance records.

A Consumer Reports WebWatch search for “find a lawyer” on Google illustrated the problem. The top result on the page, FindLaw.com, was the official site of the West Legal Directory, which many lawyers use as a professional resource. But other sites without that pedigree appear almost as prominently on the first Google results page, and several fall short of Federal Trade Commission guidelines for online commerce practices.

One of several such examples, Thebestlegalservices.com, asks users to provide personal information, including home phone number and e-mail address, so unnamed lawyers can contact the user for a low-cost consultation – without saying who operates the site. A fine-print privacy policy also suggests information may be sold for marketing purposes.

Another prominently featured site, AttorneyFind.com, clearly identifies itself as a St. Louis, MO-based business. The six-year-old site, which owns more than 5,000 keywords and phrases on various search engines, stands out because it addresses the issue of performance. AttorneyFind.com relies on a small staff and ad-hoc consumer feedback to remove unsatisfactory attorneys from its lists, says Steve Parkin, the site’s senior systems administrator.

Standards, Anyone?

The quest for quality is another reason why consumers may want to look at sites like FindLaw.com and Lawyers.com (another major legal resource site, owned by publisher Martindale-Hubbell), which are diligent about omitting disbarred attorneys from listings. Consumers are still only getting contact information, not performance reviews. But enterprising consumers can find a lawyer on Lawyers.com, for example, and then check his or her rating on Martindale.com, or check a lawyer’s case record online at FindLaw.com.

But even here, consumers are still getting contact information, not performance reviews. If they’re enterprising, they can try to make up for the lack of neutral online advice by consulting ratings that lawyers give their peers – a free service available at Lawyers.com’s sister site for professionals, Martindale.com. (That site uses letter codes trademarked by Martindale-Hubbell, not explanations of why a good rating was earned.) Alternatively, self-starters can check a lawyer’s case record online at FindLaw.com to see if they practiced frequently in a claimed area of specialty.

One alternative approach lets consumers look before they leap. LegalMatch.com of San Francisco and CasePost.com of Irvine, CA, both match clients to lawyers, who then bid to take a case. Clients can review the proposals – all from attorneys who meet certain standards – and decide which, if any, they want to hire.

The approach has been controversial in the legal profession because it competes with non-profit referral services certified by the national and state bar associations. In June, the Utah State Bar set off a national debate when it decided to replace its referral service with LegalMatch.com. “We did due diligence, and it was very impressive,” says Toby Brown, a Utah Bar spokesman. “It may be a leap of faith.”

Consumers should also perform as much due diligence as possible before hiring a lawyer found online. Find out if disbarred lawyers have been weeded from online listings and whether the site requires attorneys to meet certain education or professional standards to be listed.

Lawyer-seekers may also dip their toes in the water for a minimal fee. On BasicLegalAdvice.com, another Michael Lubofsky-run site, Lubofsky himself answers general legal queries from consumers for $25, as will attorneys found through non-profit referral services (see sidebar).

Sidebar: For Those Who Prefer to be Referred

Despite the wealth of online listings, non-profit referral services are still a good choice for consumers, says California State Bar’s Donald Breer. These services are certified by the national and state bar associations and emphasize quality over quantity in their listings.

While these services may list fewer attorneys than legal marketing sites like FindLaw.com or LegalMatch.com, Breer says, each attorney must achieve a higher standard to be certified, such as meet certain educational criteria, carry malpractice insurance, and agree to settle fee disputes if things go wrong.

“It’s not like going through the Yellow Pages,” Breer says. “The client is actually interviewed by a staff member.”

Consumers can also get a sense of a lawyer’s expertise before committing. Many non-profit referral services screened by state bar associations help locate attorneys who will offer basic answers to legal questions for just $25 in the hope they may be hired for a full case.

Certified referral services are listed on most state bar association Web sites, while the American Bar Association’s national list, which is maintained separately, is available at ABAnet.org.