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The truth about lawyer advertising

Being arrested is a scary experience. The next step can be equally frightening. How do you find the right person to represent you in court? If you google "criminal defense attorneys in fill in the city," you're going to see a lot of results. Some of the attorneys appearing on your screen will be excellent. Some will be far less than excellent. The lawyer fresh out of a bottom tier law school and the seasoned courtroom veteran with decades of trial experience often look the same in a google result. How can you tell the difference between the real deals and the poseurs? As I discussed in a previous post about how to find a good defense attorney, it takes work to find the right criminal defense attorney for your case. You should never hire an attorney based on advertising or a snazzy website. In this post, I address some of the most popular and dubious forms of lawyer advertising that you need to be aware of.

Avvo: Avvo is a web company based in Seattle that has received well over $100 million dollars in venture capital money with the aspiration to be the yelp, tripadvisor, or amazon reviews of the legal services world. Avvo produces a numerical 1-10 rating for lawyers and also publishes client reviews. Attorneys who pay Avvo receive prominent placing on the website and are listed as “Avvo pros.” We live in an age where everybody looks at star ratings and reviews before purchasing anything so I understand Avvo’s appeal. However, the reality is that their rating system is a meaningless gimmick. The rating is based on an algorithm that can be easily gamed so that many less than excellent lawyers gain a 10.0 rating. Let me be clear that there are great attorneys who pay to be “Avvo pros” with high Avvo ratings (obviously I consider us to be among those attorneys). Let me be equally clear that there are lousy attorneys with high Avvo ratings. My point is that one has nothing to do with the other.

So I’ve just trashed Avvo which begs the question: then why do you advertise on Avvo? Fair question. If a prospective client goes online and sees that such and such attorney has a 10.0 rating and I’m a 8.5, I might very well lose that client who has no reason to know that the rating system is a joke. I don’t like the game, but we would risk being trampled if we refused to play. That being said, we don't advertise our Avvo rating on our website because we strive to be honest and there is nothing honest about the Avvo rating system.

Awards: There are some criminal defense attorneys who claim to be "award winning." Their websites are festooned with little gold stars and ribbons. It certainly sounds impressive. One can imagine a black tie ceremony with the attorney proudly holding his/her golden statue for national super duper top 10 best attorney in the air as he/she makes an acceptance speech before the beaming members of the bar. Sorry to ruin the lovely image, but it’s nonsense. We don’t hand out trophies in this business. Almost all of these "awards" are marketing scams. The attorney sends a check every year to a P.O. Box and in exchange gets a certificate proclaiming that he/she is a super star rising premier attorney deluxe. These scams endure because clients don’t know any better and because some attorneys are so pathetic that they actually think these things are worth something.

Former Prosecutors: You are going to find a number of attorneys who market themselves as former prosecutors. There’s no question that it’s a very effective marketing technique. Even attorneys who were in the prosecutor's office just long enough to get a cup of coffee will proudly trumpet that they're a former prosecutor for the next 20 years. A lot of people believe that former prosecutors have special access and influence at the courthouse. Is that true? Not really. In my experience, many prosecutors transition into being very good defense attorneys, but it has nothing to do with them having insider knowledge and connections. All defense attorneys know the prosecutors. Most of us have friendly working relationships with the prosecutors. I consider many of them to be friends. But the reality is that prosecutors don’t dismiss cases because they like or used to work with the defense attorney. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t hire a former prosecutor (some of whom are among the best), but if his or her sales pitch is that they have extra “juice” in the prosecutor’s office, they’re probably full of it.

Too good to be true promises: What's going to happen in my case? That’s usually one of the first questions that I'm asked by clients. And duh, I get it. Of course, that’s why they called me. However, there is usually no reliable answer in the first client interview. There are many, many variables in every case. The strength of the evidence, your prior criminal record, the particular prosecutor, the particular judge, the availability of witnesses, how much the witnesses care about the outcome, whether there are suppression issues, etc, etc. etc. Anybody who talks to you and tells you that they’re going to get your case dismissed or promises a specific outcome during the first interview is lying to you. If an attorney tells you that your case is "easy" or promises you a specific result the first you speak to him/her, you should run out the door. I can’t count how many cases I've had where a client was duped into hiring someone based on false promises only to come back to me later on to clean up the mess (only with pockets thousands of dollars lighter).

Low ball fees: Everybody would prefer if an experienced and competent defense attorney fell into their lap for free. Sorry, it’s not going to happen. When you hire a good defense attorney, you’re paying for wisdom, perspective, and seasoning developed over thousands of cases and decades of work. Good representation costs money. If an attorney is quoting you the lowest price in town, he/she is probably either desperate or not very good. If they offer a coupon, you should run. This isn't Macy's. That being said, I will say that the highest price does not necessarily reflect the best attorney. Recently, I was having a conversation with a prosecutor about a defense attorney who is roundly mocked for his incompetence. This buffoonish attorney charges some of the most exorbitant fees in town. The essence of his marketing strategy is that prospective clients assume he must be the best because he’s the most expensive. And it works!

So how do I find a decent lawyer?: My point is not to criticize the existence of lawyer advertising. Every business advertises. We can’t get clients if nobody knows we exist. My point is that you should be aware that most lawyer advertising is b.s. There are good criminal lawyers out there, but if you’re doing it right, you need to put serious time and effort into finding the right one for you. Real deal criminal defense attorneys are made in the courtroom trying serious cases. How many felony trials has an attorney had? How many jury trials? Does the attorney have samples of trial transcripts for review? Does the attorney have samples of motions, briefs, and appeals? Can he/she have an educated conversation about sentencing guidelines? That sort of information is going to give you a much better insight into whether an attorney is the real deal or just an empty suit.

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