Ohio Supreme Court says hijacking law firm names to drive Google results is a deceptive practice…

Attorney David BetrasI am the managing partner of this law firm which means I am a businessman, which means I am an advertiser. I understand that some people are appalled and offended by attorneys who market their services and are fond of referring to personal injury attorneys as ambulance chasers.”

That is ironic for two reasons: first, because the term was coined in the days when attorneys were forced to contact potential clients and their families directly because the bar was barred from advertising and, second because the pejorative is used regularly by the folks who run or work for mammoth insurance companies that spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year on marketing.

Talk about hypocrites. I guess it is ok for Allstate to spend $500 million annually to convince accident victims that they are in good hands, but I am a ghoul for spending less than one-two thousandth of that to tell them the company is using those hands to pick their pockets.

Go figure.

But I digress. What I really want to discuss in this column is the way marketing in my profession has evolved since 1977, the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that lawyer advertising was commercial speech entitled to protection under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Immediately after the decision in Bates v. Arizona was announced law firms began using every available advertising medium to contact clients including television, radio, billboards, direct mail, and the Yellow Pages. For readers too young to remember, the Yellow Pages were the business directory section of something known as a phone book—a thick printed directory that listed every phone number and address in a community. Think of it as a printed version of Google, only much more difficult to use.

Anyway, because the phone book was the way most people obtained phone numbers for businesses, competition for the highly visible and easily accessible parts of the directory including the covers was fierce. Attorneys often paid tens of thousands of dollars for the coveted spots which explains why every Yellow Pages sales rep back in the day drove a Porsche, Cadillac, or Corvette.

Today, the Yellow Pages have been replaced by Google, Yahoo, Bing, and YouTube. The bidding wars for frequently searched keywords like “accident attorney” are every bit as fierce as the battles that raged for prime placement in the phone book with one major difference: the competitors cheat by doing things like purchasing the names of other law firms.

Here is how it works: a person who has been injured wants to contact my firm. They search for Betras, Kopp & Harshman. The result comes back in a millisecond, but the phone number and website that pops up belong to the law firm that is paying the most for our name on that day. So instead of calling us, the potential client calls one of our competitors.

I think the practice is dishonest. The Ohio Supreme Court agrees and recently issued an opinion that said using another firm’s name to drive traffic to a law firm’s own site “may constitute conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation,” and is an act “…designed to deceive an Internet user.”

I applaud the Court’s ruling. Now, if we could just get the justices to force Nationwide to admit they are not on our side…

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