Simon Dumenco

Ambulance Chasers Offer Lessons in Digital Marketing

Marketing Do's and Don'ts -- Especially Don'ts! -- From a Surprising Source

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Need help devising a truly kick-ass digital marketing strategy? Looking for an expert to help give you an extra edge? Maybe you should just ask the nearest trial lawyer. Because the Institute for Legal Reform would like you to know that , man, do trial lawyers ever know their shit when it comes to digital marketing.

The Institute would also, by the way, like you to know that it thinks digital-savvy trial lawyers are pretty much out of control -- but I'm jumping ahead of myself here.

Just in time for our Digital Issue, the ILR gave Ad Age an advance look at its latest report titled "The Plaintiffs' Bar Goes Digital: An Analysis of the Digital Marketing Efforts of Plaintiffs' Attorneys & Litigation Firms," which functions as both a sober analysis and a none-too-subtle political tract.

The ILR, you see, was launched by the powerful, conservative-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1998 specifically to "neutralize plaintiff trial lawyers' excessive influence over the legal and political systems." The trial lawyers' defense, of course, is that when they win headline-making multimillion-dollar lawsuits against corporate wrong-doers, particularly in cases related to product safety, they're championing the little guy and protecting consumers everywhere. The ILR's counterargument: Such suits are often frivolous, unduly burden businesses and mostly just line the pockets of lawyers, thanks to the breathtaking legal fees typically involved.

But if you can set aside the subtext of political warfare, "The Plaintiffs' Bar Goes Digital" is an eye-opener no matter where you stand on tort reform. Prepared for the ILR by Arlington, Va.-based social-media agency New Media Strategies, the study asserts that trial law firms are "devoting millions of dollars to the creation and maintenance of websites, Facebook pages, Twitter handles, blogs and YouTube channels. A conservative estimate finds that in a given 12-month period, these firms will spend more than $50 million on Google-keyword advertising alone."

More than 800 trial-attorney firms, according to NMS, actively spend on Google keyword advertising, with at least 25 such firms spending more than $100,000 annually with Google. And terms that are hot-button issues in the personal-injury legal realm -- such as "mesothelioma" (a rare asbestos-related cancer) -- are minting money for Google at up to $80 a click.

If you've ever been anywhere near daytime or late-night TV, you already know that personal-injury lawyers are big TV-marketing spenders. So it's no surprise, then, that personal-injury law firms are big digital spenders too.

Word cloud representing recent volume of online discussion of key terms that are hot in personal-injury law.
Word cloud representing recent volume of online discussion of key terms that are hot in personal-injury law. Credit: The Institute for Legal Reform

But the ILR has a larger point to make: It maintains that the interconnected websites and social-media campaigns sponsored by the plaintiffs' bar can be rather ... questionable. It deconstructs the methods some firms use in the "the online trawl for clients," including the creation of sites that are little more than web-surfer flytraps designed to capture the personal contact information of potential clients.

"Plaintiffs' firms," the report asserts, "are creative in their approach to attracting (and keeping) clients. One approach has been to move into niche practices that may not have even existed a few decades ago and then optimize a web presence to target those seeking resources, support and additional information."

Some people who go online are "counsel-seekers" -- they've got a legal issue and they just want to find the right lawyer -- but plenty of others are just "information-seekers." And so the digital strategy of the trial lawyers cited in the study is increasingly about converting information-seekers into hopping mad, ready-to-sue prospects.

"Firms will often create separate online presences to capture both counsel-seekers and information-seekers," the ILR points out, and thanks to savvy SEO, seemingly independent sites for information-seekers can turn up at the top of Google search results. "These websites are positioned as patient support groups, medical resources, official government sites and even advocacy organizations. They often have official-sounding domain extensions such as .org and .us. While usually (though not always) disclosed in fine print that the sites are part of a marketing communication by a law firm, the content and visual aspect of the sites appear to be purely informational."

The ILR calls shenanigans on a whole range of such information-seeker sites related to not only mesothelioma and other specific ailments like silicosis (a respiratory disease), but the Whistleblower Protection Act, the 9/11 Health Care Bill and even the niche legal practice of going after cruise-ship operators for sexual assaults that occur on their vessels.

The report asserts that "the failure to clearly disclose management of sponsored social media profiles and websites deserves a closer look as they may be in violation of not only standards set by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), but also the standards of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)."

"The Plaintiffs' Bar Goes Digital," in order words, is both a deep dive into the incredibly effective digital strategies of some high-powered marketers, and a cautionary tale.

It's also a curious call to action for the ILR, in that its parent organization, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, usually disdains big government. (It's sponsored attack ads against ObamaCare.) But when it comes to plaintiffs' law and sketchy digital-marketing practices, the ILR suggests that the long arm of the law should be ... even longer.

Caveat emptor to consumers using the internet to seek out legal advice. And to digital marketers of all stripes: Watch your back.

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