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  • Inside Track
    June 15, 2016

    On Family Law: Building a Family Law Practice in the Digital Age – A Cautionary Tale

    The best family law practices will be built by combining old-fashioned networking with digital technology and a good website. However, lawyers who use online referral services need to be sure they are complying with Supreme Court Rules.

    Diane S. Diel

    woman lawyer at computer

    June 15, 2016 – Back in the day, building a family law practice was all about forming positive connections with a strong referral network, doing a good job, billing fairly, being diligent and attentive to clients, and knowing when to say “no.” Word of mouth referrals from a referral network of satisfied clients and professional colleagues were the bread and butter of most family law practices.  The term “networking” came along and the strategy of forming those good connections became focused.

    While the underlying concepts for building a successful practice have not changed with time, how the lawyer connects with the world about her practice has changed. All lawyers, whether established in practice or just building a practice, really must maintain an internet presence. Even established lawyers whose business comes exclusively from personal referrals know that prospective clients who have been referred to them will look them up online. If the referral source provides two or three names, the website becomes a key tool for securing the prospective client. 

    Today, the proliferation of internet-based, for-profit, lawyer referral services make it tempting to conclude that there is an easier way to build a practice.  The marketplace offers many such services.  If you are a family lawyer, you know these companies.  Representatives of these businesses call and email lawyers relentlessly pitching the promise of building the lawyer’s business.  The phone messages left invariably ask if the lawyer has time to accept new cases, because the caller has cases in need of urgent referral.   

    How Do Online Referral Services Work?

    Many online referral services offer package deals; for a fixed fee, each lawyer is listed by the service as a provider in the geographic and practice area.  Prospective clients go to the website and describe their problem.  The referral service sends back names of lawyers who are on their referral panel, and it is up to the client to reach out to the lawyer.   

    Diane DielDiane Diel (Wisconsin 1976) of Diane S. Diel S.C. practices family law in Milwaukee. Diane is a past president of the State Bar of Wisconsin.

    If you want to know more about these services from the point of view of a prospective client, perform an internet search for “how to find the best divorce lawyer.”  Most of the first page responses will be for-profit lawyer referral services.  Many of the second page or beyond responses are articles written for and posted on the websites for the internet referral services.  The prospective client is led directly to these services and then, cleverly, indirectly back to these services through the articles.

    Many of these services promise the client names of local lawyers whose credentials include awards and ratings.  Many companies offer awards and plaques. All the lawyer needs to do to receive the award is pay the “membership fee1.”  Some of these awards simply cannot be supported as reflecting true accomplishment.  If the lawyer referral service is maintaining that it delivers the “best” lawyers, but only delivers those who have paid for the service, “best” is a dubious description.  It is unethical to present false or misleading communications about the lawyer’s services. SCR 20:7.1 and 20:7.4.

    Some referral services go beyond sending a list of names.  If a prospective client looking for the best lawyer clicks the referral services link to Avvo, the client will first find the names of lawyers who have paid a fee to be featured on the Avvo page. If they scroll far enough down the page, they will find an ad offering the services of a lawyer to fill out all basic “uncontested” divorce paperwork for a single flat fee. Wisconsin lawyers are currently on the panel and are being recruited to provide these Avvo services. If the client clicks far enough, the names and credentials of lawyers willing to accept such cases appear on the screen. The client then can choose the lawyer and pay directly online to Avvo.  

    Avvo pays the fee to the lawyer, but the lawyer pays a fee back to Avvo for the case. Avvo contends that its fee is payment for its services in marketing the lawyer, which is permitted by SCR 20:7.2(b)(1.). Because the fee paid by the lawyer varies by the type of engagement and the amount paid by the client, it is very difficult to conclude that the fee is based on the cost of the marketing services. A fee paid “for channeling professional work” is prohibited by SCR 20:7.2. Other ethics concerns come to mind as well. Just to name two concerns, first, this process does not seem to include the possibility of a conflicts check.   Second, given that the services described are unbundled legal services, the lawyer must determine whether the limitation of scope is reasonable and assure the informed consent of the client. Caution signs are everywhere.

    Learn More …

    Bending the Truth in Advertising – Can You Substantiate Your Claims?InsideTrack, April 15, 2015

    When marketing legal services, lawyers must be able to factually substantiate their claims. Statements that mislead are violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

    Internet Advertising: What is Permissible and What is Not?InsideTrack, Dec. 3, 2014

    Considering participating in an Internet-based lead generation service? This article explains considerations for complying with ethics rules on advertising in this gray area.

    Need Ethics Advice?

    Contact the State Bar’s Ethics Hotline, (608) 229-2017 or (800) 254-9154, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

    Do These Services Generate Business for Lawyers?

    Another internet search asking whether the internet referral service works will yield some answers.  Some of the services generate some approval, some don’t.  In true internet marketing genius, some of the criticisms of these services, including informative pieces on YouTube, are generated by internet marketing firms representing lawyers.    

    Lawyers are clearly seen as profitable customers by marketing and online referral services. Some uses of these services may help build a successful family law practice – or any practice for that matter. Lawyers who use these services need to be careful to assure that they are complying with the Supreme Court Rules.  The best family law practices will be built by combining old-fashioned networking with digital technology and a good website.  And, perhaps an aspiring family lawyer might write an article entitled “How to Find the Best Divorce Lawyer” and post it on the firm website. Hmmm.    


    1 In just the last several days, the author has been pleased to learn that she is in the “Top 100 Lawyers in the World,” membership is expressed in thousands of Pounds Sterling, the “Top Advocates” in the Country, membership is $300 and the plaque is extra, and “Top 10 Women Lawyers in Wisconsin” with membership of $275, and the plaque is of course, extra.

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