Marketing of legal services using digital channels is potentially dangerous, critics warn

By John Breslin | Nov 1, 2016

Photographersnature / Wikimedia Commons

Digital marketing of legal services to drum up tort cases is a new form of ambulance chasing, and a potentially dangerous one, critics of this new frontier of advertising charge.

The pioneer of television advertising in Louisiana told hundreds of attorneys at a recent gathering that digital is rapidly taking over the crown as the new king of legal marketing.

Morris Bart was one of close to 50 speakers at the three-day Mass Tort Made Perfect conference held at the Las Vegas Bellagio.

His topic was how to use digital media to acquire cases, and he urged those attending to look at social media in particular, which he termed one of the “most important vehicles in the mass tort arena.”

Morris Bart  

Many of the exhibitors at the Las Vegas gathering were legal marketing firms, with many advising how to convert leads into clients, the Mass Tort Made Perfect website detailed. Conversion through social media is a timely and major topic of conversation on legal marketing sites.

Yet some are wary of its power and potential to cross a legal line. 

“Legal advertising practices have evolved and exploded in recent years with super rich personal injury attorneys like Morris Bart leading the way," Melissa Landry, executive direction of the Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, told the Louisiana Record. 

Jim Harris, spokesman for the Coalition for Common Sense, an umbrella organization for 43 groups working in the area of civil justice, said the practice is bordering on breaking the law. 

“It sounds like a new form of ambulance chasing,” Harris told The Louisiana Record. “And you are not supposed to do that illegally, but that very well is what it could lead to.”

Landry agrees. 

“No longer do we see personal injury lawyers chasing after ambulances in the streets or showing up uninvited in hospital rooms after accidents," she said. "Now they are chasing after our digital profiles online. This is not a resource-starved, grassroots effort but rather a well-funded and highly targeted endeavor.”

While traditional television advertising continues to proliferate in Louisiana, legal marketing firms with digital expertise are beginning to emerge.

“Trial lawyers have become very sophisticated online players investing millions in search engine marketing and optimization to drive traffic to their websites," Landry said. "They are sponsoring branded and unbranded content on social media sites such as FaceBook and Twitter. Some firms even set up phony or misleading websites to disguise themselves as impartial advocacy groups or support networks to lure in unsuspecting victims.”

Harris said it's possible that trial lawyers may cross the legal line as they work more under the radar on the internet and social media.

“Ambulance chasing was their primary opportunity to get business back in the day,” Harris said. “This is just another form. It’s quite dangerous, but everybody has freedom of speech.”

He highlighted one area that he was aware of, that of lawyers setting up separate blogs but with advertising embedded in them.

"The combination of these new online tactics with traditional outreach through billboards and crash cash ads on local television can have a powerful impact on users," Landry said. 

Of the legal marketing firms offering services to drum up business digitally, Harris said he was starting to see that happen as well.

That was reflected during the recent Las Vegas conference. More than 1,000 attendees, representing 450 law firms, traveled to Las Vegas for the biennial conference. Speakers covered 50 different topics, all relating to mass tort.

One of the most anticipated speakers was Bart, introduced as a “true pioneer when it comes to marketing and advertising."

Bart was introduced as a lawyer with a “fabulous reputation as a great advocate,” and one clients “adore and respect.”

In his address, the now nationally known personal injury lawyer advised those attending that while television remains king when it comes to mass tort, digital media is vying for the crown — and rapidly gaining strength.

Bart was speaking to a crowd of people “relatively new to mass tort and relatively new to marketing.” While he said he believes in the power of television advertising, Bart urged attendees to turn their attention to digital platforms as well.

“I believe television is still king, that television is the best and most effective way to get any sort of cases, especially mass tort,” Bart told the conference attendees. “But I also believe that digital is rapidly becoming the new king. You have to be proficient at both.”

After guiding the attendees through a basic course in organic search engine optimization and paid advertising to pull “consumers” to the sites, Bart said social media is key, and one of the “most important vehicles in the mass tort arena.”

Bart advised lawyers that they can move the conversation on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram through specific advertising, feeds and mass blasts.

He cited the example of a woman with breast cancer who has taken Taxotere as part of her treatment, but later suffers permanent hair loss.

She may set up a Facebook page to find out what others are saying about her condition. That provides an advertising opportunity for lawyers, Bart said.

Bart cited the “lots and lots (of) companies, all good companies” in the exhibition hall attached to the conference room “that are all trying to sell you their services.”

The list on the conference website noted that many of these firms were selling legal marketing services.

One of those exhibitors was Rainmaker, which describes itself as one of the largest legal marketing firms in the country.

In a recent blog post, Stephen Fairley of Rainmaker wrote about the use of social media to promote a firm.

“Directly promoting your firm is a non-starter on Facebook — unless you are talking about your wins," he wrote. "We’ve had several clients who have had great success talking about the wins they have had for their clients on Facebook.”

Fairley then added, “Instead of using direct promotion, add your spin to contemporary news or trends, share an inspirational quote, talk about why you do what you do, talk about how your firm is expanding to help even more people, or post something about your charitable endeavors or the way you treat your staff to a thank you party or a gift certificate for their birthday. “

Legal marketing firms also advise on how to search for people on social media, which may build leads and relationships. One example given was a divorce lawyer searching for people tweeting about break-ups and divorces.

“By reaching out to them, you’re instantly generating a possible lead,” one blog advised.

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