Because solicitation is a bad word in the legal profession, the ABA Model Rules governing advertising and direct marketing make you read between the lines. You learn what you can do through rules that mostly state what you can’t. Because lawyers are blood-sucking vampires, our pale faces stuck in the rear-view of every tearing ambulance, these rules restrain us from the helpless sleeping public, when night falls and our urges to solicit business overwhelm.

But this is the age of Google and always-on Web connectivity. Let’s channel our unholy energies in the way I describe below and prove to the ABA we’re not that dangerous – and that the model rules on lawyer advertising should be significantly revised and expanded.

This is legal marketing as professional responsibility.

Online Legal Marketing Is Not the Same as Cold-Calling Families at Dinnertime

A quick show of hands shows nearly every lawyer in the room has a website or is thinking of getting one. We generally can’t engage in direct legal marketing (telephone, email, mobile, etc.) but we can advertise online. This is pull legal marketing. Prospective clients search us out.

And we should be doing a lot more with it.

As Jessica Mador reports for Minnesota Public Radio, two tours of duty and the guy gets 60 calls a day. A military veteran in financial trouble after the 2008 recession and his life is threatened. His voicemail fills with cuss words and insults.

It gets so bad with these debt collectors, he hits rock-bottom.

Look, the guy puts a shotgun in his mouth and is this close to pulling the trigger.

Mere words on a website won’t necessarily prevent someone facing legal problems from contemplating suicide. But, on the other hand, the debt collectors used words too. It’s generally against the rules for an attorney to reach out directly to someone in need, so we don’t have that option, do we? We don’t really have anywhere else (except online) to broadcast to the world at large: “You’re not a loser. You don’t have to put up with abuse and harassment. You can make it stop.”

The Words We Write in Legal Marketing and Promoting Ourselves Do Matter

We have, however small and provincial our little corners of the Web in our websites and blogs, an ethical and perhaps even spiritual (if you want to take it there) responsibility to practice legal marketing in this way.

  • We have it in our power to write that a consumer doesn’t have to put up with a debt collector’s harassment and abuse and lies.
  • We have it in our power to write that the person considering bankruptcy is not a failure.
  • We have it in our power to write that an addiction should not be a criminal offense (if that’s your take on it), or that being accused of a crime doesn’t make you a bad person, nor does it make you guilty.
  • We have it in our power to remind those who are getting divorced that they have a responsibility to think of what’s best for their kids and that fighting over anything and everything is only going to add stress, time and legal fees.

In short, we have it in our power to tell the stories that matter to people facing legal problems in their lives, to give useful information that perhaps eases their minds a little and answers a few of their basic questions about their situation, and to promote ourselves honestly and truthfully, with a minimum of puffery … to communicate—because not every lawyer is good for every client—what exactly it is that makes us the right fit for whoever is looking for a lawyer to help them with their problem.

Just Like Pro Bono Publico

We are encouraged to pursue 50 hours of voluntary pro bono work every year as part of a professional responsibility to serve those less fortunate among us. The rule, as it reads, is stated in the affirmative; there’s no reading between the lines with this one.

Not all of us actually do our 50 hours of pro bono work every year, but everyone advertises and does legal marketing, and we should be encouraged to do so as a matter of professional responsibility.

The legal marketing rules should be just as affirmative.