Is it okay for lawyers to mislead the public with fake bar associations and made up awards? Attorney Richard Breen is stirring the pot with the question as he has started a referral service from a bar association that doesn’t exist. Members of the public believe that they’re getting a reputable referral from a credible source while attorneys pay a subscription service, and they pay directly for each referral. Lawyers who want referrals pay $200 to sign up, and they pay $75 for each case that comes their way.
Credibility has long been a question mark of attorney marketing. Flashy lawyer awards are as much about advertising as they are about actually giving an award. Lawyers often pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege of receiving an award. They receive a plaque to hang in their office and an image to use on their website. They can boast about their award online or in the local newspaper.
Advocacy watchdogs say that it’s false advertising. They say that members of the public don’t know that the awards come with a price. They say the awards might prevent people who need legal representation from finding the lawyer that’s best for them. Watchdogs say that the pay-per-play awards and referral systems amount to fake news.
The organizations that hand out the awards say that’s not the case. They say that they offer the awards to only a limited number of lawyers in their profession. They boast of a thorough vetting process that can sometimes include a phone conversation and ethical checks. Without these safeguards, they say, word would get out that their awards don’t mean anything.
It’s up to each state to create the rules for attorney advertising. Because lawyers are seen as having a great deal of power in society, how attorneys can approach potential clients has long been a matter of discussion and debate. State bar associations want to make sure that the public is protected from feeling harassed, threatened or misled.
One group criticizing paid attorney advertising is the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Attorney Advertising. They say that an attorney may not ethically be able to advertise themselves as the best or greatest even if they’ve won an award that says so. An attorney wanting to hold themselves out to the public as the greatest or the best should be able to point to verifiable data that backs up the claim. For now, it’s up to consumers to evaluate what they see and decide what attorney to hire.