Plaintiffs’ lawyers spend millions in online ads. Should we care?
As I read the Institute for Legal Reform’s just-released report on “digital marketing efforts of plaintiffs’ attorneys and litigation firms,” I was left with a disquieting image. I pictured a devastated husband and wife returning home from a doctor’s office with the awful news that one of them has mesothelioma, the fatal asbestos-linked cancer. They sit down at the computer, type “mesothelioma” into Google’s search engine, and instead of finding dispassionate medical advice or a support group for fellow sufferers, they end up with a list of sites that are, directly or indirectly, contingency-fee firms looking to file a personal injury suit on their behalf.
That’s precisely the picture the ILR, an arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wants to evoke. The report asserts that plaintiffs’ lawyers are spending upward of $53 million a year to secure keywords that will lead unsuspecting Google searchers to their websites. The report, prepared by New Media Strategies, examined cost-per-click search data from Google AdWords on 125 keywords the ILR “identified as of interest to trial lawyers.” (The keywords included mesothelioma, asbestos, several drug brand names, and phrases like “corrupt practices” and “whistleblower laws.”) Based on a 45-day study of how much plaintiffs’ firms appeared to be paying to secure prominent places in search results, ILR’s study extrapolated estimates of annual spending.
Its findings? Plaintiffs’ lawyers are paying almost three times more for keyword advertising than the Obama campaign spent in 2008, and more than twice as much as Apple spends on keyword ads for iPhones and iPads. And that $52.6 million is only what the trial bar supposedly spends on Google keyword advertising, so it doesn’t even include increasingly sophisticated client-magnet techniques plaintiffs’ lawyers are said to be using on Twitter and Facebook. The ILR study identified seven tort firms that it said spent more than $1 million a year on Google keyword ads, led by Danziger & De Llano ($16.6 million), Sokolove Law ($6.3 million), and the Lanier Law Firm ($5 million).
ILR’s president, Lisa Rickard, said in a press release that the report reveals trial lawyers’ client-trawling tactics. “This new research shows how the practice of law in the United States has gone from a noble calling to often times a large commercial enterprise, with marketing that rivals the largest industries in our society,” Rickard said. “While there is certainly nothing wrong with marketing your services, those services should be clear from the start. Sadly, some of the marketing tactics employed by some in the plaintiffs’ bar should cause the public to question: Is this ‘client at any cost’-model what we want our legal system to look like?”
Now for the reality checking. I reached out to the three firms the report identified as the biggest spenders on Google keyword ads. Danziger & De Llano and Sokolove Lawdidn’t respond to my phone messages. But Mark Lanier sent me a series of emails about the ILR’s assertion that his firm spends $5 million a year. “We do not pay one penny for online advertising,” he said. “I find this flabbergasting.” (An ILR spokesman said that New Media Strategies relied on data from Google’s AdWords in compiling the report’s findings.)
Lawyers at two qui tam firms cited in the ILR report’s discussion of online advertising designed to “capitalize on new whistleblower laws” also said the report’s estimates of their spending seemed high. More fundamentally, though, Jamie Bennett of Ashcraft & Gerel (listed as spending about $163,000 on Google keyword ads) and John Phillips of Phillips & Cohen (reportedly spending $200,000) said there’s nothing wrong with assuring that potential whistleblowers find lawyers who can help them expose fraud. “Anything you can do to raise visibility of fraud in public is good,” said Bennett. “We should be spending three times as much on advertising to bring fraud to public light.”
Phillips noted that when people type “false claims” or “whistleblower” into a search engine, they’re probably already pretty sophisticated. And if Googlers click on keyword ads that lead them to his firm’s website, he said, they’ll get a lot of information about the ups and downs of being a whistleblower (as well as information about the firm’s admirable record in qui tam cases). “We’re not trolling for cases. We don’t want inquiries that aren’t well-founded,” Phillips said. “There aren’t nuisance settlements in these cases.” And though he said the firm has increased its advertising budget since Congress enacted the Dodd-Frank Securities and Exchange Commission and Internal Revenue Service whistleblower programs, the intention is to improve Phillips & Cohen’s market share, not to gin up meritless cases.
I do agree with the ILR that plaintiffs firms shouldn’t masquerade on the Internet as advocacy groups or support networks, but Phillips and Bennett make a fair point. Is there anything wrong with getting information from a plaintiffs’ firm, even if that’s not necessarily the destination you sought when you began a search? In the scenario I wrote about above, for instance, the mesothelioma patient could probably use a good lawyer as well as a good doctor. (And good meso lawyers probably know almost as much about the disease as doctors.) Why is the asbestos victim who obtains information from a plaintiffs’ firm’s website any different from the unsuspecting reader of one of the pro-business newspapers the Chamber finances in plaintiffs-friendly jurisdictions?
In fact, to put the $52.6 million that trial lawyers are reportedly spending on keyword advertising in context, someone should really study what drug companies, for instance, spend on keyword ads for the diseases their products treat. Or what banks used to spend to attract subprime mortgage applicants. I’m pretty sure we’d find out that plaintiffs’ lawyers aren’t the only ones out there innovating ways to improve their business models through Internet ads.
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