Online referral services can be a good source of business for lawyers entering private practice. And the pitch is often tempting: “Sign up with us and you’ll get all the clients you want in [your practice area]. You will be the only lawyer in [your state] to receive referrals from us.” Scads of clients. Exclusivity. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Bar-operated programs aside, you should take the time to scrutinize offers from for-profit online referral services. Potential traps abound:
Paying a fixed annual or other set periodic fee not related to any particular work derived from a directory listing violates neither RPC 5.4(a) nor RPC 7.2(a). A charge to Lawyer based on the number of hits or clicks on Lawyer’s advertising, and that is not based on actual referrals or retained clients, would also be permissible. Helen Hierschbiel, Internet Marketing: Rules of the Road.
The key here is that the fee and the work are not connected. The typical referral service gets this right, but make sure you understand how fees are paid and what conditions apply. To learn how you might run afoul of the fee sharing prohibition, see Amber Hollister, What Hath the Web Wrought? Advertising in the Internet Age.
Odds are you’ll be required to report back some kind of tracking data to the online referral service. Assuming this includes only benign information, such as a client identification number, there is no breach of confidentiality. Services vary, however, so learn exactly what must be reported and why.
…Internet-based advertising is governed by the same rules as other advertising. The basic ground rule is that advertising cannot be false or misleading. See RPC 7.1(a). Because Web pages may be viewed by persons outside of Oregon, lawyers must take care to ensure the advertisement identifies the jurisdictional limits of their practices. Furthermore, while lawyers may include their names in directories or other advertising Web pages, they must not allow a directory to promote them using means that involve false or misleading communications. RPC 7.2(b). Lawyers are responsible for content that they did not create to the extent they know about that content. Helen Hierschbiel, Internet Marketing: Rules of the Road.
Some online referrers advertise that the lawyers in their network are “Verified.” They give lawyer-members “Verified” logos or other graphics to place on their websites. This begs the question: what does “Verified” mean? By whom? How? When? Unless this statement is adequately explained, it could be considered false or misleading.
Puffery in numbers
If the online referral service is suggesting you should sign up now because they have a gazillion clients waiting in the wings for a lawyer in your practice area, probe that representation. Ask for numbers, demographics, and details. If the clients really exist, they should have the information to back up the statement. How many clients do they anticipate referring to you each month? What is the basis for that expectation? How will they ensure the flow of future clients?
Puffery in other ways
Some online referral services tell lawyers they’ve been approved or vetted by a bar association. Designed to give peace of mind, this statement is more than a little suspicious.
While a referral service may have done its homework to investigate the rules in Oregon, and may have contacted the bar to learn more about the rules, this does not constitute “approval” of the program. To my knowledge, the bar does not engage in such a process.
If you are approached by a referral service that implies it has been approved by the Oregon State Bar, contact the Oregon State Bar to verify this representation.
Some services promise exclusivity: sign with us and you will be the only Oregon lawyer to receive referrals in your area(s) of law. You should be especially skeptical of this representation. Get it in writing and carefully investigate any potential exceptions or loopholes.
General reputation, references, and complaints
Minimally, run a Google search. Look beyond the first page of results. Read any articles, reviews, or posts about complaints that mention the name of the service. The BBB or like organizations can be a good source of information.
Also take the time to check references. Ask for the names of other Oregon lawyers who have been using the service for at least six months.
Make sure you understand the cancellation terms. You don’t need a nasty surprise if you decide to get out. Initial set-up fees are likely to be nonrefundable, but check.
The PLF has an excellent set of marketing practice aids which include a business development goal checklist, sample marketing plan, and marketing worksheets. Download these resources at Practice Management > Forms > Marketing on the PLF website.
Many of the issues related to online lawyer referral services are ethical in nature. Don’t hesitate to contact the OSB General Counsel’s Office when in doubt.
All Rights Reserved  Beverly Michaelis