Sunday, July 16, 2006

Attorney advertising rules and web content #2

I'm still upset about the proposed rules on attorney web content. I'm sending a second letter to the Office of Court Administration about it, and I'm pasting the text of my letter below. I would appreciate any comments.

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Michael Colodner, Esq.
Counsel
Office of Court Administration
25 Beaver Street
New York, New York 10004


Re: Proposed rules for attorney advertising


Dear Mr. Colodner:


I write to further explain the concerns I mentioned in my June 20th letter, in particular relating to the Internet. The new regulations, supposedly aimed at TV ads, will harm consumers who use the Internet.

At the moment, legal information on the web includes both lawyer websites and websites controlled by corporations. These corporate-run websites are disturbing. A good example is SWI Digital, a company that has over 50 law-related websites such as PersonalInjuryLawyer.com. Their slick websites do not tell you who is providing the information. They often refer you to an attorney by a form. You submit your information to their website and they refer your case to an unnamed attorney. With attorney websites, you know the source of the information, and you don’t submit your private information into unknown hands.

There are far too many of these corporate sites to list, but examples include LegalFish.com, TixNix.com, DUI.com, DrunkDrivingDefense.com (founded by a lawyer but owned by Legal Brand Marketing LLC), OnlineLawyerSource.com, AllLaw.com, LawInfo.com, LawyerShop.com, LawOnline.com, CasePost.com, LegalMatch.com, InjuryHelpLineAttorney.com, NewYorkLegalHelpCenter.com, YourBestLawFirm.com, Criminal-Defense.us, BankruptcyHome.com, TotalInjury.com, PersonalInjuryLawOffices.com, SelectCounsel.com, New-York-Lawyers-Attorneys.com, AutoAccidentClaims.com, LegalHelpers.com, TotalBankruptcy.com, etc.

That’s only a partial listing of law-related websites that compete with attorney websites. They compete in both the “organic” (unpaid) and paid listings. When people search for attorneys or for legal information on the web, they see some lawyer websites and some corporate websites.

The proposed rules would make impair lawyer websites in this competition. For organic listings, the regulations will make it more difficult for lawyers to “optimize” our websites. Organic listings are generally thought to be the majority of traffic on law firm websites, and this is certainly true for my website. Optimization, known in the web marketing industry as “Search Engine Optimization” or SEO, is a very complex process. The proposed disclaimers will impair keyword optimization by forcing lawyers to include content that will not be liked by the search engines (Google, Yahoo and MSN are the leaders). The record-keeping requirements will be especially difficult for lawyers who frequently update their sites. Some in the SEO community believe frequent updating improves a website’s rank on search engines.

Mandated disclaimers will also confuse consumers, make the sites appear less credible, and effectively ban attorneys from using “pay-per-click” advertising (also known as “sponsored links” or PPC). For someone with a well-optimized site, PPC is not very important. But for others, PPC can be the main source of web traffic.

The vague nature of the regulations will also cast a further chill over attorney websites, as it is unclear what might provoke the wrath of the state bar.

Corporations are not subject to the same regulations, and cannot be held accountable for deceptive content and misinformation. If lawyers have to engage in this competition with our hands tied behind our backs, corporations will dominate the provision of legal information on the web, and consumers will suffer. With lawyer websites, the bar can hold attorneys accountable for deceptive conduct -- without any new rules.

The proposed rules are motivated by lawyer ads on television. I have yet to read a single article about an attorney website that demeans the profession. I have yet to see any explanation as to why these regulations attack attorney web content. Usually government encourages or even requires sellers to provide more information to consumers. Here the court system is perversely discouraging such disclosure.

With all of the foregoing in mind, I hereby request that the rules on websites not be implemented yet. In the alternative, I request a public hearing so that I can be heard on these issues, answer questions about this if those behind the rules have questions, and so that I may ask questions of the people behind the rules, to ensure they know what they’re doing.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.


Very truly yours,
Warren Redlich
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