Badvertising


New York Criminal Defense Lawyer Scott Greenfield writes about lawyer advertising:

Before I finally succumbed to creating my own website, I googled to see what others had done. It was, to be kind, shocking. The first half dozen lawyer websites I stumbled across were worse than patently offensive; they were flagrantly false and deceptive. It appeared that the best substitute for competency is the willingness to openly prostitute oneself and the knowledge of how to use google search terms.

He gives the example of a lawyer who would appear from his website to be el chingón, but who Scott, who knows just about every criminal-defense lawyer in New York, has never heard of.

I feel for Scott. When I google “Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer,” I see:

  1. that Summit Defense of San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, CA is wasting its money on Google pay-per-click searches in and for Houston;
  2. that various “Defense Groups” — agglutinations of unspecified criminal-defense lawyers banded together for internet advertising, claiming to “handle cases in all 50 states” — get enough business from pay-per-click advertising to continue doing it; and
  3. that any schmoe with a law license can make himself appear competent on a website.

Having practiced for a dozen years in the Harris County criminal courthouses and served as an officer of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers’ Association, I know just about every serious criminal-defense lawyer in Houston. Some of the folks in the third category I’ve never heard of, which means that they haven’t been down at the courthouse much and haven’t bothered to join the organization — too busy marketing themselves, I guess.

Others in category (3) I know couldn’t defend their way out of a wet paper bag. They’re writing checks in their marketing that they can’t cash in the courtroom (here’s a clue: when “former prosecutor” figures prominently in the lawyer’s marketing plan, odds are he isn’t very proud of his talents as a defender).

SHG despairs for himself and his fellow criminal defense attorneys who aren’t willing to stretch the truth to get the business:

Clients have always struggled with a means of determining how to select a lawyer, what to look for and whom to trust. Whether they admit it or not, they really want some hyperbolic claims (not to mention a few guarantees) to give them comfort in the cold darkness of their jail cell. Most criminal defendants aren’t the most learned or thoughtful in society, and are not inclined to parse the details.

SHG will call me pollyanna, but I think he is wrong. The accused are like most other people: some of them want to be lied to, some of them want the unvarnished truth, but most don’t know what they want. They are, however, educable — especially if they seek the help of someone who hasn’t had the misfortune of getting entangled in the criminal retribution system. We conscientious lawyers who believe in telling clients the truth can teach our potential clients how to choose a lawyer, and what to look for — in other words, we can teach them what they want.

We can only teach them what they want, however, if we can reach them. This is why it is important that lawyers like Scott — and Bryan, Texas criminal-defense lawyer Stephen Gustitis (a former prosecutor who has turned out well) and Austin criminal-defense lawyer Jamie Spencer (never a prosecutor) and Dallas criminal-defense lawyer Robert Guest (another former prosecutor converted to the side of the angels) — advertise. If all the clients see are hyperbolic claims, they might fall for the most theatrical. But if they can compare hyperbole with talented analysis, they are more likely to pick the latter.

Take, for example, the “former prosecutor” rhetoric — if a client only sees lawyers bragging about having put people in boxes, he won’t be as likely to stop and think about whether that’s the kind of lawyer he wants. But if he sees lawyers emphasizing their defense experience, he’s more likely to give prosecutorial experience the importance it deserves when he is deciding who the right lawyer is for his case.

Those last three words are the key to helping clients find the right lawyer. The lawyer-client relationship is a relationship. That means that two people contribute to it, and what is important is how the two people work together. There is no “best lawyer” for every case. The best lawyer for one person is not necessarily the best lawyer for another. The only way to choose a criminal-defense lawyer is to talk — preferably with the help of someone whose opinion you respect — to as many as you can stand to and decide who you are going to trust with your freedom and your life. The process is not easy; it shouldn’t be. The decision is, ultimately, a leap of faith. The best that we lawyers of conscience can do is tell the truth and hope that the people who need us, find us.


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