One of the most common questions lawyers ask me is whether or not they should join a particular organization, purchase a listing, or add a badge to their website. The answer depends on a few factors:
- Is the company / organization reputable?
- Does being listed on their website provide any value?
- Does the badge or insignia hold any true meaning?
- Is it a scam?
To answer these questions, we must look at the bigger picture and determine which category they fall into. I group these into three categories:
Nonprofit Legal Associations
In the legal industry, nonprofit organizations are the only entities that can provide a true measurement of a lawyer’s merit and accomplishments within specific areas of practice. They provide valuable education and resources to help lawyers improve their practice and competency. They are honorable and pride themselves on their commitment to advancing the legal profession.
These types of nonprofit legal organizations include:
- Regulatory bar associations
- Voluntary bar associations
- Educational (501c3)
- Advocacy (501c4)
- Academic institutions and Fellowships
- ABA-accredited board certification programs
To fall into this category, the organization must:
- Be a tax-exempt nonprofit organization
- Have a board of directors
- Provide CLE (continuing legal education)
- Have regular events such as meetings, seminars or conferences
Legal associations are the backbone of the legal industry. Unfortunately, most nonprofit legal associations are behind the curve when it comes to technology. Most all of them have been around since before the internet. Some of them since the 19th century. They typically do a very poor job at getting in front of consumers. This brings me to our second category.
Commercial Lawyer Directories
The most prevalent commercial entities within the legal industry do a fantastic job at getting in front of consumers. By utilizing powerful data-driven technology and robust marketing strategies, commercial lawyer directories are easily found by consumers and provide user-friendly experience. These include:
- Lawyer Legion (disclaimer: I am a stakeholder)
While these commercial lawyer directories are reputable, they are often times very gimmicky. Most all of them utilize some form of subjective ratings system to determine how a lawyer compares to other lawyers. Avvo’s 10 out of 10 “Superb,” Martindale’s “AV Preeminent,” and the “Super Lawyer” are all examples of this. The criteria for these subjective ratings rely heavily on peer endorsements, or in other words, popularity contests. If you have 10 friends who will endorse you, congratulations, you’re a super-duper lawyer.
Because these ratings are not practice area specific, they provide little value. However, these large-scale commercial operations are legitimate, and they do rank very well in Google’s search results. Consumers do find them and use them. For these reasons, it might make sense to purchase an enhanced listing in these directories if it provides a return on the investment (although I do not recommend displaying the commercial logos on your law firm’s website).
All of these commercial lawyer directories utilize some sort of “pay-to-play” system for determining who ranks at the top of search results. Some are worse than others. For example, Avvo will not display your phone number or website on free profiles. Same goes for Martindale and SuperLawyers but they will not display your headshot or bio either. Lawyer Legion and Justia, which in my completely biased opinion are the two best, will allow you to display all of your contact info, photos, bio, and social media on free listings.
True merit cannot be measured with a subjective rating or some flattering adjective. The label of superb, excellent, premium, or super-duper lawyer nor the amount of money they spend on advertising are indications of how well the lawyer will perform in representing someone facing a specific type of legal issue. Again, only the nonprofit sector can provide any true indication of this. However, one of the reasons these commercial directories have been so successful is because they play into the lawyer’s ego. By being labeled with these flattering adjectives, the lawyer feels special. Which brings me to our third and final category.
Lawyer Ego Scams
These are not reputable, the listings provide absolutely no value, and the insignias are completely meaningless.
Disclaimer: By referring to these as “scams” I am not implying that they are doing anything illegal. I am not saying that they don’t deliver what they promise to their members. They do, and the product they deliver is a phony “award.” A phony “award” you have to pay for which comes in the form of a generic graphic, a meaningless plaque, and a misleading unverifiable claim that you are better than other lawyers. I use the word “scam” as a matter of opinion. I am simply pointing out that they are totally bogus. They use questionable marketing strategies to mislead consumers and trick them into purchasing something that has no intrinsic value.
All of these scams share the following characteristics:
They are operated by just one individual or a small group of individuals. There are no events, seminars, or conferences. The business address is usually just a virtual office or a UPS Store mailbox. It’s often times very difficult to find the identity of who runs the scam. You won’t see them exhibiting at legitimate events in the legal industry. Unlike the reputable commercial lawyer directories, which are operated by large teams of professionals providing legitimate services, the scams are operated entirely by a single individual or a small group of individuals. They provide no legitimate services whatsoever.
They masquerade as a nonprofit organization. Their names often include words like: “forum,” “institute,” “society,” “association,” or “academy,” to try and mimic actual nonprofits. Some of them even claim to have a board of directors or board of regents, but don’t provide a list of names of the people serving on this board (because it doesn’t exist). This sort of misleading language is an attempt to fool the consumer into thinking it is some legitimate nonprofit. They are anything but. In fact, some of they are extremely profitable.
They play into a lawyer’s ego. These scams will prey on the egotistical lawyer. By using laudatory language like “top,” “best,” “distinguished,” or “premier,” lawyers will feel flattered and shell out the money for something that has no intrinsic value. They get listed on a website that consumers don’t know about and don’t use. They get to display a meaningless badge on their website, and they get a shiny meaningless plaque to hang on their wall. The only aspect that may provide some kind of benefit is that they get to fool their prospective clients into thinking that they have accomplished something meaningful. In other words, purchasing these simply helps lawyers mislead their potential clients.
The website is just a link farm. Being listed on these sites provides no benefit at all. The link won’t help you it might even harm you. Having too many backlinks from low-value sites can negatively impact your website’s credibility with search engines. There is 0 SEO value because there is no original, unique, or valuable content being posted to the site at all. There are no educational resources being provided and no original articles or stories. Sometimes you will find an RSS feed that displays links to stories from other sources, but that’s it.
A few things you will always find :
- A short page about the “selection criteria” that is extremely vague.
- A “Nomination Form” that lawyers can use to submit another lawyer for nomination (for being spammed). Nominations are simply a way for the scam to contact that attorney and say “Congratulations, so-and-so has nominated you for…” upping their chances of suckering that person into buying the fake award.
- A short description or video talking about how the attorneys in this group are “the best” and how very few attorneys are members.
- A directory of lawyers who have paid to be listed. This is the link farm. Some of the lawyer’s profile pages will contain a bio which is simply user-generated content that was copy/pasted from somewhere else.
- Featured attorneys (the most recent suckers).
A few things you will never find:
- Free profiles.
- The name of the person or persons who founded the organization.
- A list of names of the persons responsible for choosing the attorneys or those who serve on the organization’s board.
- Events or seminars that are hosted by the organization.
- A legitimate address or office location. The address is always just a virtual mailbox.
- Photos and names of the team of people responsible for the operations.
- A phone number that you can call and speak to a person, you might get a phone number that goes to voicemail, that’s it
There is no meaningful selection criteria. They all claim to have a stringent selection process and they all describe this process on their website in an extremely vague way. They will often say something like “Less than 1% of attorneys have been selected.” Translation: “Less than 1% of attorneys were stupid enough to pay for this fake award.” Fact of the matter is: any lawyer can join. In some cases, you don’t even have to be a lawyer. There have been instances of lawyers purchasing the membership for their dog and even a pet chicken. If you are willing to pay the price, you will be included.
Some scams who claim to be the “top 100” attorney in your state, will… get this, break the state into multiple “regions” once they reach the 100 attorney threshold and then change the language to say “state or region.” This allows them to sell fake awards to more than 100 people in larger states. They never deny anyone, they will continue creating more regions every time one of them reaches 100. There is not a single instance of any attorney ever being denied membership into one of these scams.
When it comes to the selection criteria, one scam in particular is the lone exception. The Million Dollar Advocates Forum requires one criterion: the lawyer has to have obtained a $1M+ verdict or settlement on a case. Of course, this doesn’t mean they did a good job on the case. It may simply mean they screwed up a case that should have been a $5M+ verdict.
Speaking of Million Dollar Advocates Forum. The individual who operates this brilliant scam is Don Costello, an attorney out of San Diego, CA. Currently, there are more than 7,000 suckers who have paid Mr. Costello. In 2011, an anonymous blogger wrote an article comparing the business model of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum to that of Girls Gone Wild. A quote from this classic article:
“So, if you ever see a Million Dollar Advocates Forum certificate hanging in your lawyer’s office, imagine your lawyer drunk, on Bourbon Street, lifting his t-shirt and yelling, “Whoooooooo! Check these out!” Because that’s pretty much what he’s doing.”
Another blogger who has written on this topic is also the former Director of Marketing for Avvo, Conrad Saam. Currently the President of Mockingbird Marketing, Saam and his team have written some fantastic articles exposing Lawyers of Distinction and the American Institute of Personal Injury Attorneys, among others.
Many of these scams are sending out mass emails and direct mail campaigns as we speak. I know because my clients forward me these emails all the time. I’ve recently received an unusually large amount of these within the past 3 months or so.
Many lawyers are asking me about this. So, I’ll go ahead set the record straight. Here is my running list of known lawyer ego scams:
American Institute of Legal Counsel – SCAM
American Institute of DUI/DWI Attorneys – SCAM
American Institute of Personal Injury Attorneys – SCAM
American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys – SCAM
American Institute of Family Law Attorneys – SCAM
National Academy of Family Law Attorneys – SCAM
National Academy of Criminal Defense Attorneys – SCAM
National Academy of Personal Injury Attorneys – SCAM
Million Dollar Advocates Forum – SCAM
Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum – SCAM
Best Attorneys of America – SCAM
American Academy of Attorneys – SCAM
American Association of Premier DUI Attorneys – SCAM American Society of Legal Advocates – SCAM Lawyers of Distinction – SCAMNational Academy of Jurisprudence (formerly American Academy of Trial Attorneys) – SCAMNational Academy for DUI Defense – SCAM
National Association of Distinguished Counsel – SCAM National League of Renowned Attorneys – SCAM Top American Lawyers – SCAM
American Jurist Institute – SCAM
America’s Top 100 Attorneys – SCAM