DennisBeaverSeptember 02, 2006 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

What do you think of using the internet to find a lawyer? Can you trust the sites that promise to link you up with a good lawyer? Or, do you recommend avoiding online sources? The reason I ask is that a friend found an attorney through one of these “matching” services, was really disappointed and had to find another lawyer by asking friends for a recommendation. Thanks, Peggy, a Eureka reader.

A professional what?

If you’ve seen the terrific film, “Ferris Bueler’s Day Off,” then the scene where a somewhat weird parking lot attendant, seconds from driving off in their car, states, “You guys got nothing to worry about. I’m a professional.” “A professional what?” replies Cameron, another character in this hysterical comedy.

Let’s face it. The term “Professional” is about as current and applicable to the practice of law as Service Station is to gasoline. There are few true “Service Stations,” where the employees wear nice uniforms, pump your gas, check tire pressure, clean your windows and have good knowledge about auto mechanics. They once existed everywhere, as at one time, there were indeed Lawyers and Counselors at Law whose first concern was not looking good for a TV commercial and who dared to tell a client, “No, we aren’t going to file that lawsuit, because you’re wrong.”

The practice of law today is in most instances a business, concerned with generating billable hours, and madly chasing the available pool of clients.

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The Internet affords an inexpensive way of reaching what many lawyers feel is a shrinking pool of business. It is “shrinking” as the ratio of lawyers to population continues to increase in metropolitan areas. In plain English, particularly in the mid- and large population centers, there are more lawyers than white mice, and like white mice, our numbers are increasing. This means that, where at one time there was perhaps one lawyer for every 2,000 people, now the number has fallen to one lawyer for every 300 people, or less. Fewer lawyers means a scramble for available business, or the creation of business from clients who should be told, “Just go home and forget it.”

Today’s Online lawyer advertising is a direct result of a 1977 decision by the Supreme Court that made it legal for members of the bar to run ads in the phone book. Before that, attorneys could not advertise, and the practice of law was hugely different than it has become, many would argue because of advertising.

“When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that lawyers could advertise, telephone directory publishers knew at once that a goldmine had been opened up, and we got out our shovels. It proved to be a great source of business.” I was once told by Sieg Fisher, publisher of the tremendously successful Valley Yellow Pages.

He was right, and I was one of the first lawyers in my town to run a small ad in the phone book. It worked. Boy, did it work, and then within a couple of years telephone books were filled with lawyer ads. As more lawyer ads were multiplied, I reduced the size of my ad and finally quit advertising.

The Internet – still the Wild West

“The problem with Internet advertising – by lawyers individually, or through services that promise to link you up with a lawyer – is that the public has no real way of knowing how qualified or the lawyer’s skill level,” Family Law Specialist Glen Rabenn of Seal Beach told me. I’ve known Glen since we both attended Loyola Law School together and he was the first California Family Law attorney to advertise on the Internet – so comments from him have weight indeed.

“Even though I have had a web presence, I still believe the old fashioned way of finding a good lawyer is the best,” Glen maintains. “Ask your friend for a recommendation, and then use the net to supplement your knowledge of that lawyer, or the questions to ask when you meet him or her. The danger with online referral or matching sources is that things look great, but you really can’t trust what they are saying,” Glen stresses.

Empty guarantees

Recently a telemarketer from called my office, lying to my secretary in order to get me on the phone, and then refusing to admit that he was really just trying to sell me web advertising. Using the con, “I need to speak with Mr. Beaver about a divorce,” the call turned into an invitation to dig further into this company.

I did and spoke with one of their “attorneys” (himself also in marketing) who admitted that had the call been placed to my home, they would have been violating the law! By default, the implication was that it’s OK to not tell a secretary that it isn’t a call from a real client, and saying anything to get to the boss is just fine. Sorry,, I differ.

Their business idea is fairly simple, and others – such as – operate in a similar manner. You, the client, post your legal problem on their web site, and then member lawyers – who pay to get this information – call the client and try getting the case. They deny it is a referral service and maintain that all of their attorneys are carefully screened.

What was telling about both and is their “Satisfaction Guarantees.” I encourage anyone with Internet access to go online and read these “guarantees,” and then tell me in plain English what they are saying! The “Consumer Satisfaction Guarantee” has some truly marvelous language, the kind of stuff that a freshman English teacher would probably flunk! In my opinion, it is a guarantee all right, one that generates frustration for the consumer.

To get them to reimburse you for attorney fees – if one of their lawyers did lousy work – you have to go through more hoops than a circus entertainer! And, if by chance you get to the point of qualifying for to pay you, then, “The amount to be paid to the Consumer by Casepost shall be within Casepost’s sole discretion, and shall not be subject to negotiation, arbitration, litigation, or any modification at any time….”

In contract law, this is called an illusory promise. They are promising to pay nothing, as it is “within their sole discretion.” I ran that by their attorney – who had left the practice of law some years ago – and asked that they consider re-writing this gobbledygook, truly giving the consumer something. “Call me back, or e-mail the changes if you make them,” I said.

I am still waiting.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.