Do Lead Gen Websites for Lawyers Violate the Rules?

Some attorneys live by lead generation services, others don’t use them at all. They pay a fee, and in return, they get leads and out of those leads come clients.

But is it Legal? That’s a tricky question. At first blush, the answer is yes in most states because there are few laws—if any—that explicitly ban the practice. However, there are rules about advertising, and each state has rules of professional conduct that can put restrictions on lawyers can use lead generations services.

While it’s technically legal, the way the leads are generated can violate the rules of professional conduct for lawyers, and the lawyers themselves can face fines or other disciplinary action.

So, a better question is whether it’s ethical? Many lawyers say no.

Types of Lead Generation Services

Online lead generation services generally fall in three categories:

  • Lawyer Directory:A directory will list lawyers giving their geographical location and their practice area. A lawyer can pay of an ad which will bump them up to the top. Typically, these do not endorse any particular lawyer.
  • Legal Referral Service: The lawyer pays a fee to be included in the search for that geographic and practice area. Typically, the service explicitly recommends a lawyer calling it the “best” for your area. In some, the one that is recommended is usually the one that has paid the highest fees. In others, the fee to the lawyer is bases on how much the lawyer has made using the service.
  • Legal matching service: Similar to a referral service except that instead of getting a lawyer for a practice area, the client submits a summary of their problem, and then this is used to match an attorney to that client. The potential client gets a list of attorneys that fit their submitted information, and the participating lawyer gets information about the prospective client.

Rules of Professional Conduct for Lawyers

Each state has its own rules for their attorneys, and that state’s supreme court will often make the final decision on what advertising practices violate that state’s rules. There are also the Model Rules of Professional Conduct put out by the American Bar Association as a guide for the states. The Model Rules address marketing for lawyers, and most states have adopted the same or similar language.

Rule 7.1 “A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.”

Rule 7.2 “A lawyer shall not compensate, give or promise anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services except that a lawyer may pay the reasonable costs of advertisements or communications permitted by this Rule.”

  • Other parts of the rule state that if a lawyer enter into an agreement for referrals:
  • The agreement can’t be exclusive,
  • The client is informed of the existence and nature of the agreement, and
  • That the lawyer can’t state or imply the he or she is a specialist unless they are certified by their state bar.

When this is applied to digital lead generation service, then the devil is in the detail when it comes to a rule violation.

Today, the vast majority of lead generation is through a website. It works like this: someone looking to get a divorce finds the lead generation website and submits their profile in response to some questions asked by the website. That becomes the lead, and this is then sold to an attorney which is geographically local to the client getting a divorce.

Other websites will ask for a practice and geographical area, and then a list of attorneys pops up, and the client can click on the one he or she likes and send that attorney a message.

False or Misleading

When is something false or misleading? The most obvious is when the website or the lawyer’s profile states facts that are not true. Examples would be that the lawyer has had several seven-figure settlements or jury awards when they just go out of law school.

A participating lawyer is still responsible for the service’s website even though the statements are not made by the lawyer directly. So the lawyer should look at the statements made by the website to see if they violate their state’s rules of professional conduct.

No Recommending

The primary rule that governs lead generation websites is the rule against recommending a particular lawyer. Rule 7.2 is pretty clear that recommending an attorney for a price is prohibited. The key to this is whether the site expressed or implied any subjective evaluation.

Both lawyer matching sites and legal referral sites often use blatant statements of value like “the best for you” or the right attorney for your needs.” When the attorney pays for leads that says they were the best one for the client, then it seems to run afoul of Rule 7.2

Lawyer directories and some lawyer referral services can operate without violating Rule 7.2, but the results have to both appear and actually be free from subjective evaluation. If the user put in geographical and practice area criteria, and the results that come up offer a group of possible attorneys and the client is able to chose the one(s) he or she contacts, then these are generally acceptable.

Saved by the Fee

There is one way around the rule against recommending. If the lawyer is not charged for the leads but pays only a flat fee to be in the field of possible attorneys, AND the client is the one who chooses the attorney, then there is no payment for client leads. The only consideration for the flat fee payment is to be in a pool of attorneys, and since the client will contact the attorney, there is no violation. This end-around can be successfully copied for any of the “lead generation” sites, although technically it doesn’t generate leads as much as it gets the lawyer’s name out to the client.

The Future of Lead Generating Sites

Despite a host of violations with some of the ways lead generation sites operate, the services seem to be thriving. Some may have to pay a fine and modify their operations, but by and large, there is no big movement in the legal community to shut down these sites.

In fact, states like New York, Illinois and Rhode Island have all issued opinions in the last five years that have cleared the way for these sites to operate so long as they conform with that state’s interpretation of the rules.

There is a fine line that each state’s bar has to walk in trying to protect the public from fraud and misleading websites while at the same time not cutting the legs out from many of the firms who rely lead generation for their livelihood.