Business of Law
Not Just for Apartments and Used Guitars
By Ed Finkel
Jul 2, 2009, 01:40 am CDT
It’s free, easy to find and use, and provides access to a wide audience. And while there are downsides to Craigslist, solo and small-firm practitioners say the website can be a useful practice-building tool as long as you know what to expect.
Possibly the largest classified advertising website, Craigslist provides a legal services section within each of its dozens of local sites. Anecdotal evidence suggests it’s getting plenty of use: On a single day in April, the Chicago site alone had more than 100 attorney ads posted with attention-grabbing headlines like “Low-Cost Bankruptcy” and “Don’t Let a Divorce Make You Go Broke—Free Consultation.”
Elk Grove, Calif., solo Jonathan Stein has been using the site for nearly three years, and he gets five to 10 inquiries per week. He estimates that 80 percent of those inquiries turn into clients.
“Consumers these days go to Craigslist for everything,” including lawyers, says Stein. “It does take a little while to figure out how to use it effectively. I probably spent my first six months getting a lot of garbage phone calls.”
Stein now has learned how to avoid those garbage calls by refining his ad and knowing what to expect. Those contacting him about personal injury matters tend to be just starting their attorney search and are often looking only for basic information, while those who contact him about foreclosure matters are often ready to hire a lawyer because of the amount of research they’ve already done.
Overall, Stein thinks the site is valuable. “For the 10 minutes I spend a week putting up my ads, my return on investment is immeasurable.”
Kent, Wash., solo Susan L. Beecher started advertising on the site more than a year ago, intending to focus on business and employment cases. But the economy forced her to expand her practice into family law, which she’s found generates the greatest response. She’s brought in 25 to 30 clients so far.
The main benefits for Beecher are the price and time involved; the primary downside has been respondents who try to chat her up for free help.
“They feel that their cause is just, especially with family law,” she says. “They’ve lost their parenting rights. They feel this is just so horrible, somebody should be willing to do this for free. And we can’t do that.”
Lea Bickerton, who practices with her husband, William, says their Pittsburgh-based criminal defense firm began advertising on Craigslist last October. Most of the clients they’ve brought in—10 or so—have been expungement cases.
The Bickertons take the time to design a “first-class-all-the-way” advertisement, so they don’t dilute their brand.
“People think, ‘If they’re on Craigslist, how good can they be?’ ” she says. “It’s a reputation type of thing. When you see the quality of other ads on Craigslist, it might not make you look good to be in that type of company. That’s why it’s important for us to put in a classy ad.” Craigslist does not allow more than three ads within 48 hours, nor can attorneys repeat ads in multiple cities, Stein says. To stay true to the spirit of the site, he generally stays below the maximum.
“The hard-core Craigslist users will flag your post if they don’t like it, and then your posts start disappearing,” he says. “They get offended if they think you are spamming the list.” Ethics experts at the ABA say they don’t see particular issues with Craigslist that are different from any other website.
“It’s just like any other ad anywhere else,” says Art Garwin, deputy director of the ABA’s Center for Professional Responsibility. “You can’t put up anything that’s false or misleading.”
“It’s not the media that’s the concern, it’s the message,” agrees Will Hornsby, staff counsel in the ABA’s Division for Legal Services. “The rules are the rules, and lawyers have the obligation to comply.”