Hate marketing? Good news! (Well, maybe.) There are literally thousands of consultants who would be happy to do it for you. And a few of them are probably actually legit!

All you have to do is pay a small referral fee (only don’t call it that) for the chance to talk to a potential potential client (not a typo).

Sound awesome? Here’s the catch. Two catches, actually.

Catch 1: quality and quantity

It is pretty easy to get people with legal problems to fi d your website and then do something for free (i.e., fill out a contact form or call a switchboard). All you have to do is promise to help them (see Catch 2, below). Then, you charge a lawyer for the chance to talk to that “lead” (a potential potential client). Or you charge a lawyer a fee (monthly, weekly, whatever) for access to the leads you generate.

This kind of online lead generation is nothing new, but it is nothing old, either. Total Attorneys was one of the earliest companies to offer online lead-generation, but once it cleared its ethics hurdles, the floodgates opened. Now, there seems to be a new startup every week offering to connect lawyers to potential clients. (Lawyers are apparently a favorite target for online entrepreneurs.)

So getting “leads” is not the hard part. The hard part is not wasting your time with leads that go nowhere.

For example, my state bar association offers an online lawyer referral service for $40/year. I figured that was cheap, and signed up for landlord-tenant law in my city. I got a lot of calls — at least 1 a day, on average — but I did not get a single genuine potential client. $40 is not a lot of money, but the time I wasted talking to bad leads added up to an awful lot of time.

To be worthwhile, a lead-generation service must be able to deliver quality leads consistently, not just lots of leads. And it doesn’t matter if the service offers to refund your fee for bad leads. Getting the refund is just more wasted time.

If you do test a lead-generation service, it’s important to keep an eye on your return on investment (ROI). In order to calculate that ROI, you have to take into account the time and money you spend on leads that go nowhere, not just the cost of the leads, and compare those costs to the fees generated from them.

(Aside. I sometimes hear lead-gen firms criticizing lawyers for not knowing how to “close” on leads. While it may be true that some lawyers are missing out on some clients due to poor sales skills, consumers of legal services are not like consumers of, well consumer goods. You can sell a widget to anyone with a credit card. You cannot (in the sense of “you are morally and professionally obligated not to”) sell legal services to someone who does not need them.)

Catch 2: outsource marketing = outsource ethics

Eric Turkewitz’s “outsource marketing = outsource ethics” admonishment is 100% accurate. When you hire a lead-generation service, you are placing some of your ethical resposibility in the hands of that service. While lawyers frequently assume some ethical responsibility for the actions of others, usually those others are people we supervise. That is not usually the case when it comes to lead generation.

You probably have little or no idea what goes into online lead generation. Even if you know what can go into it, most lead-generation companies won’t tell you much in the way of specifics. The magic juice that generates leads is what they make their money from. Telling you would mean giving up the secret sauce. So how do you know whether you should worry about your license as a result of your lead generator’s behavior? That’s just the problem. You don’t.

I can give you some idea of what sorts of things to look out for, though. For starters, ask to see the landing page (or an example of a landing page) used by your lead generation company. Does it try to fool visitors into thinking they have found a law firm? Does it try to fool visitors into thinking that they are emailing a lawyer directly, or that the page is owned by a law firm? What does it say or suggest about you, if anything? Does it set expectations of results for the potential client?

If the company uses paid advertising, ask to see some examples of the ads it uses. Look for the same kinds of things as you did on the landing page.

Ads and marketing copy must comply with ethical rules, whether they are online or offline. Make sure they are accurate, and that they do not set unrealistic expectations or make inaccurate claims about your services. Make sure they don’t suggest things like “specialties.”

What sort of linkbuilding does the company engage in? If its strategy includes blog posts or comments, ask to see some examples. Does it write posts about vaccuum cleaners just to embed a keyword-rich link about lawyers? Does it post on spammy websites? Does the company buy text links?

Link spamming and link buying are on search engines’ no-fly list. Even if they result in short-term SEO gains, they result in long-term damage to the sites on both ends of the scheme — including yours, if it is involved. Plus, getting involved with spammy marketers makes you look like a douchebag.

So should you hire a lead generator?

Regardless of the potential quality and ethical problems, many lawyers do hire lead-generation firms, and it seems to work quite well for many of those that do. I think it is far better to build your own referral network, which doesn’t (shouldn’t) come with referral fees. Relying on lead generation to grow your practice means committing to paying for leads. And while you may build a small referral base from former clients, it won’t be anything like what you can build if you actually focus on getting out and networking.

But let’s not ignore the potential quality and ethical problems. Quality you can overcome. If you can make enough money from the quality potential clients who filter through, you can probably hire a lawyer to do your screening for you, and still turn a profit. If you are solo, you would need to choose your lead generator carefully.

And those ethical problems are a concern. To help avoid them, stick to more well-established lead-generation companies, and do some research into their practices to make sure you are comfortable putting your stamp of approval on their methods.

Even if you do decide to engage a lead generator, do not ignore networking. Paying for leads does not build a book of business. Only good lawyering, a good reputation, and lots of networking can do that.

(image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/philcilcain/6259808473/)