1. If you’re looking for The Promised Land, you’re in the wrong place. This is the Wild West, Pilgrim.
2. There are clients online—sophisticated, moneyed clients—but they don’t find lawyers the way you think they do. That is, they don’t find lawyers the way the marketers want you to think they do. Clients—sophisticated clients, clients with money—who use the internet to find lawyers don’t google “Houston criminal lawyer” and pick the first lawyer they see. Clients get a few names from one place or another and then google each one. Google your name: what do you see? Yeah, that’s what your potential clients see too.
3. As a result, online (as in the real world) your reputation is everything. In the beginning, you might think you can create your own reputation, regardless of the truth. Jason Sughrue thought that too (go ahead, google it; I’ll wait).
4. But this is not the Yellow Pages. Here, content is king. If you write good, interesting (not “I’m the best!”) content, people will link to it and discuss it. If people link to it and discuss it, more people will link to it and discuss it and pretty soon it’ll be part of your reputation.
5. No, the State Bar is not watching very closely what you say here, but others are. The internet may be mostly lawless, but it is not without order. If you write dishonest content, people will link to it and discuss it and pretty soon it’ll be part of your reputation.
6. And, even more than you don’t want a grievance filed against you, you don’t want to become a subject of contempt or derision in the blawgosphere.
7. So tell the truth. Does this really need to be said? On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. So what? You’re not a dog, and if you lie you will get caught. Misrepresentation is lying. Exaggeration is lying. Leaving reviews for yourself is lying. Pretending that you wrote something that you didn’t is lying, even if you paid someone to write it for you (okay, to be fair, maybe he wrote it himself—maybe he thinks he’s royalty or has multiple personality disorder).
8. Also, do not spam. If you don’t know whether you are spamming, you’d better figure it out fast. In the Wild West of the internet, it’s like walking down Main Street with your yamschwaber hanging out. This will not help your reputation: nobody wants to hire the lawyer who strolls down the thoroughfare waggling his yamschwaber.
9. Don’t let other people lie or spam for you either. In Eric Turkewitz’s formulation, “Outsourcing marketing = outsourcing ethics”:
When lawyers outsource their marketing to others — be it a “search engine optimization” company, an attorney search company, or some hybrid — they are hiring agents to do their advertising. Agents. We learned about that stuff in law school. The concept has a long and deep legal history. The web didn’t make it go away.
10. Because word of ethical breaches spreads like wildfire, outsourcing ethics = outsourcing reputation. If your agents break the rules you, you will get caught and blamed, and it will not soon be forgotten. There are quick draws who will not hesitate to brand lawyers ultimately responsible for spam as spammers.
11. If you must outsource your marketing, know what your agents are doing. Houston criminal-defense lawyer [name redacted] probably didn’t realize it at the time, but his marketing budget paid for someone to leave this comment spam:
If it is your first offense, you should blow. The money you would have to pay a lawyer to win at trial or get a good plea bargain would probably be equal to the total fines and costs if you blew and just pled guilty, right?
When you hire the marketers, you’re playing by their ethical rules. Rules like HighlySearched.com’s:
It is our highest priority is to help our clients grow their business and make more money. That is what everything boils down to and why not!
Why not? That I have to answer that question makes me want to drink heavily. Because we’re lawyers, different rules apply to us than to those selling penis-growth drugs. Since our own highest priority is not to grow our businesses and make more money, it can’t be our agents’—not, at least, if we aren’t closely supervising them.
12. Don’t trust the marketers. Even if the marketers make what sound like the right noises (“We are a strictly ‘white-hat’ SEO firm and will never use unsavory or risky techniques”), they may be promoting you by spamming blogs with comments, linked back to your site, like this actual spam comment that firstname.lastname@example.org tried to leave at Simple Justice on behalf of one of her Houston DWI lawyer clients:
The dark tint can be a method used by criminals to get away with criminal activity, so in this case it is understandable that it should be against the law if it is too dark. However, many officers use this as an excuse to pull over innocent people.
… which just goes to show that either HighlySearched.com are lying (hey, the truth can be of no more than secondary importance when your highest priority is to make money!) or they don’t understand which online techniques (like comment-spamming reputable blogs in your field of practice) are unsavory or risky. Either way, do you want your reputation in their hands?
So what is an ethical lawyer to do, if he can’t trust the marketers, those supposed expert guides to the arcane secrets of the internet?
13. Talk to people who arrived before you. That is, lawyers whom you respect in the real world who also happen to have some online presence. They aren’t going to give you rosy promises of unlocking the doors of internet wealth for you. They will probably talk to you about blogging, about producing content, about telling the truth, about joining the conversation, about being patient.
14. Shut up and pay attention. Or shut up and listen. Or shut up and read. You won’t learn anything by making noise, but you can do grave harm to your reputation by making noise before you understand how things work in the Wild West.
15. Don’t despair. This is a new world, being constantly remade. Google revises its algorithm periodically to stay ahead of the marketers who are trying to game it (the more gameable it is, the less useful it is to consumers). The SEO tricks that work for the marketers this year will not work for them next year. As Google gets better and better, content (which, recall, is already king) will become more and more important—keeping readers engaged will matter even more, and marketers’ tricks will matter less. Patiently and without expectation of pay show what you know, how you think, and who you are, and—if you’re worth a damn—people will find you and start to trust you. Just like the real world.
16. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.