January 13th, 2010

FindLaw – How To Leave and Save Your Reputation (and Money)

Today I have a guest blogger that shows you how to save thousands of dollars a year. Those savings take place if you made the mistake of hiring FindLaw as your law firm’s marketing company (or are contemplating doing so).

The company hit my radar big time, of course, when FindLaw decided it would be fun to rip-off my blog name. A deeper look discussed how FindLaw‘s “Blogs” were tainting not only its clients, but its professor-commentators and the profession of law as a whole.

Today’s guest is a former sales rep that left on less than amicable terms because he couldn’t make an absurd sales quota selling a product that was so heavily over-priced. Today he has his own company. The financial analysis of FindLaw‘s offerings now follows:
By James Eichenberger
(co-owner of Swell Sites, a small, Minnesota web design company)

There’s been a lot of chatter, mostly disgust, around the ethics and quality of FindLaw‘s blogs as well as what I’ll considerately call a lack of creativity in naming them. I’m sure that this, like the linking scandal of 2008*, will evoke a variety of reactions from people involved in the legal marketing community. The great majority of lawyers will read these posts and feel self-assured in the fact that they don’t do business with FindLaw.

However, I’m afraid that current FindLaw customers will have one of two reactions. Some will look at it as an issue that is isolated to the blogosphere, and therefore doesn’t effect them and their products with FindLaw. The second group will realize that, whether or not they have their names posted on these blogs, this is yet another incarnation of FindLaw‘s questionable ethics, and it’s time to move.

So the question for current FindLaw customers (the group that is willing to acknowledge that their reputations are at stake) becomes how do you transition out of your current site and retain some of what you’ve already paid for? To that end, I’ve put together a group of questions that can jump-start the idea that you can indeed rescue your website from being held hostage and save thousands of dollars a year.

1. What am I really getting from the FindLaw Directory?

In reviewing traffic reports with your sales rep or account manager, it’s common to see the traffic delivered by FindLaw rolled into one big number. To be clear, there are two distinct elements that bring traffic to your website from FindLaw. First, your FindLaw profile, (which will typically include “pview” in the URL on your traffic report) and then any directory placements, which can run from $30 to upwards of $1,000 per month. [Ed. note, FindLaw links coded as “nofollow” to avoid giving link juice.]

It’s important to understand the average price per click that you are paying for traffic from FindLaw‘s top listings. In many cases, those coveted clicks from FindLaw cost well beyond $100 each. Tracking how many of these clicks actually convert to contacts by following the pages they access on your site is a very easy task with many common (and free) traffic programs. It’s troubling that FindLaw‘s traffic reporting is unable to follow these users and show conversion for this extremely expensive traffic.

2. Why am I paying monthly for my website?

There are really two answers to this question, depending on where you are in the life of your website with FindLaw. FindLaw websites are billed monthly, so the idea is that they take the cost of a website and prorate it over 12 monthly payments. So if you are in the first 12 months of your contract, it can be argued that you are still paying for the creation of your website.

Outside of those 12 months is where the math gets blurry. The monthly rates don’t change (significantly, anyway) based on the length of the contract, and what you get in terms of content or SEO doesn’t really either. Unless you are engaged with your website to the point of calling to ask what you are eligible for on a quarterly basis, your website just gets more and more expensive the longer you keep it with FindLaw. A former FindLaw General Manager said on his way out (before having moved back over to West) that the best way to get real value from a FindLaw website is to buy one and then cancel it as soon as possible.

3. What do you get beyond the initial development of your site?

That’s a question that FindLaw was trying to answer the entire 5 years that I worked there, and to my knowledge, they still haven’t figured it out. If anyone reading this can tell me of an experience where they received real value outside of the initial development of a new project I’d be interested in hearing about it. My guess is that most FindLaw customers will struggle to recall ever being proactively helped with their sites. They will tell you about “refreshes” which are additional content opportunities, but they are not easy to set up or completely clear on who is eligible.

The service is supposed to include additional search engine optimization (SEO) work, but at the time I left, they could also just have someone from the SEO team “audit” the site, and then determine whether or not they wanted to work on it. Same thing with content; unless you ask about the schedule, and then give specific direction on what content you’d like written, you likely will not get any. I’d liken the whole situation to trying to write step by step instructions on how to tie a shoe. Tying a shoe is easy, but when you try to tell someone else how to do it, it becomes infinitely more difficult than if you had done it yourself.

4. What elements of my FindLaw website do I actually own?

Here’s where there is actually some good news for FindLaw clients. There are three basic elements to your site:

Domain Name
This is the the name that brings up your site. Regardless of whether you owned that domain name before you purchased your site, it IS yours. At any time, for any reason, you can request that the ownership of your domain name be transferred to an account under your name. That gives you the ability to keep a site up and running should you decide to move away from FindLaw in the future. It also protects you from them holding on to it should you get into any type of a dispute over your contract term, cancellation date or total amount owed to the company. Your domain name is the online version of the front door to your law firm…your law firm should be the sole owner and controller of that domain name.

The content on your site that was “custom written” is yours to keep. Because you directed the writing of this content, and it was written about your firm, it is yours. The content includes the meta data which is a large part of their search engine placement strategy. Transferring your content, as well as the 3 or 4 lines of coding aimed at search engine placement, onto a new server space will typically yield the same, if not better, results on Google.

Not ALL of the content belongs to you. If you have any FAQs, eNewsletters, Practice pages or practice centers, those are actually leased from FindLaw. Re-publishing that content on to a new hosting space is a violation of the contract and licensing of the content.

The design is owned by FindLaw, but can be purchased for a fee defined as 4% of the annual value of the website. So if you were paying $12,000 a year for your site, buying the design and all images used would typically cost about $500. For that cost, you get a disc or a link to download all of the HTML files and graphics that made up your site. What you get isn’t going to be easily rebuilt by a novice, but someone with a general knowledge of websites could reconstruct it in 2 to 6 hours, depending on the complexity of the design and number of pages.

5. How much should I expect to pay for a website from FindLaw?

There are hundreds of variations, but a template, 8 page site tends to run about $500 a month on a 12 month contract. So at a minimum, the site is about $6,000.* The second year monthly fees typically drop to about $350, so a 24 month stint with FindLaw with an 8 page website will cost right around $10,000.

This price increasing over time with the relatively low service level in the second year and beyond, is really where the opportunity to save some real money comes in to play. If you already have a FindLaw website, there are several ways to get it set up on your own hosting space. Attorneys who are very web savvy may be able to handle the migration themselves. If you are not very comfortable with web development it may be far more efficient to hire someone to do it for you.

6. How much does it cost to get my FindLaw site rebuilt on another platform?

There is no perfect answer for this, but you should expect to pay somewhere in the range between $1,000 and $4,000 depending on the size and complexity of your website. Whether you are setting up a new website or working to get your FindLaw site migrated, here are a few things you’re going to want to make sure have been taken care of (in no particular order):

a. XML Sitemap Submission
b. Traffic Reporting that shows where people are coming from (a counter is not enough)
c. Domain validation through Google (available in their Webmaster Tools)
d. Meta Data on each page of your site that you would like included on Google
e. Keyword rich content that reflects the approach and feel, not just the practice area, of your law firm. 

I hope this information is helpful to people who are looking to gain a better understanding of exactly what they purchased from FindLaw, or looking to start up or advance their web marketing. I hope none of this came across as “axe-grinding” but at the same time, the reason that FindLaw can continue to get away with these other questionable projects is because there are thousands of lawyers who are paying thousands of dollars for what’s basically a trumped up web hosting plan.

*Ed. notes:

1. For more info on the prior scandal with FindLaw selling links, see FindLaw gaming Google, and possibly scamming lawyer customers? Also see: Is the FindLaw Story Getting Distorted? where former FindLaw reps out the company’s disreputable policies in the comments.

2. This blog and my firm’s website were built by a small provider for a fraction of the cost of FindLaw’s services. The idea that lawyers would pay such ridiculously high rates to build a website, and then pay hundreds of dollars more per month to host it, is bizarre.

All the content on my two sites (for better or worse) comes off my keyboard.


January 4th, 2010

Are FindLaw’s "Blogs" Tainting Its Clients, Commentators and the Profession of Law?


In looking at FindLaw’s new gaggle of so-called “blogs” that are little more than crappy search engine fodder and client solicitations, I struggled to find the right word to describe them. The ramifications of these crap-blogs are important, because FindLaw is now tainting their clients, diminishing the stature of their vaunted professor-commentators, and lowering the level of discourse in the legal profession as a whole. And because this is likely to be a source of discussion going forward, it also means these so-called “blogs” need an appropriate name.

Just as the two-week holiday started, I noted that FindLaw ripped-off the name of my blog, recently creating their own New York Personal Injury Law Blog. (Link coded as “nofollow” to avoid giving Google juice). But the problem, as noted by others, isn’t just that they ripped off my name, but that they did so with unadulterated dreck. That was one of many new, similar sites that they created.

To be clear, dreck-bloggers aren’t interested in creating good content, they simply regurgitate local accident or arrest stories and place a call-to-action link at the bottom. Posts are filled with buzzwords to game Google that, if coupled with the call-to-action for a recent event, places them firmly in the camp of Solicitation 2.0, a subject I dealt with two years ago. Put bluntly, many of these dung-blogs are electronically soliciting clients. E-chasing, for lack of a better word.

In this posting, for example, FindLaw re-writes the story of a local accident that killed four and injured two, and in just the third sentence its author spits out:

If speed was the factor that caused this collision, then the families of the victims (and the surviving victims themselves) could hire a New York injury attorney to sue the person responsible.

The author made sure to name each of the deceased, provided two separate links back to the list of lawyers that pay FindLaw, and included a call-to-action. (If you have suffered a personal injury…blah, blah, blah.) There is, of course, no natural audience for such a “blog.” The postings do not allow for comments, nor is there any attempt at creativity or analysis.

An example of how FindLaw prostitutes itself to the alter of Google — FindLaw’s prior reputation and quality writing in its Writ commentary be damned — is in the “about” section. They place 97 words in two sentences of which a remarkable 37 are keywords, to come up with this contorted piece of SEO “writing”:

The New York Personal Injury Law Blog covers news and developments in the area of personal injury and tort law in New York state, and New York City specifically, and helps to connect people with New York injury lawyers. The New York Personal Injury Law Blog is intended to serve as a resource for people working through a personal injury issue in New York, or those who are interested in New York personal injury and tort law generally, including New York personal injury attorneys who wish to keep up with the latest news developments.

[Note: I wrote about the problem of keyword clutter previously in I Hate My Website.]

As Scott Greenfield puts it at FindLaw Plays Dirty (where he warns others of FindLaw stealing their well-known blog names):

These aren’t blogs, of course, in the sense that we understand them. There are mere names designed to trade in on search engine keywords, and capitalize on Findlaw’s SEO ability to get their scam blogs higher than yours on the search engine’s first page.

And as Sheryl Sisk puts it in Findlaw vs. NY Personal Injury Law Blog: The Opening Salvo:

Let’s be clear. This isn’t a case of innocently or mistakenly adopting a geocentric keyword-rich blog name. Findlaw’s not staffed by idiots. They knew what they were doing.

What are the consequences of FindLaw‘s folly in creating such sites? 1) it demeans the lawyers that paid them for listings, who are now associated with the scat-blog; 2) it diminishes the work of the professor-commentators at Writ that they currently use; and 3) it brings down the legal profession as a whole by legitimizing such conduct. Let’s take these one at a time:

First, it demeans the people that hired this once-prominent company to market for them. Marc Randazza, on seeing Findlaw’s mierda-blogs, wrote in Findlaw, are you really that douchetastic?:

They hired a milquetoast writer to author a milquetoast blawg for the sole purpose of selling ad space to sh*tty lawyers who can’t develop a reputation on their own.

Ouch. Now I happen to personally know some of those lawyers on the FindLaw list, and know that they are fine lawyers. I’m sure they had no idea that FindLaw would associate garbage with their names when they hired the company as their agents.

But you know what? Others don’t know that. And by creating a turd-blog and associating it with those lawyers, potential clients will come to the exact same conclusion as Randazza. And they will believe that those otherwise reputable lawyers agreed to be part of this ugliness.

And Randazza has more (he always does):

Here’s a rule of thumb… if a blog post ends with “for more information, contact the lawyers at Douchestein and Dickwadbaum,” then it is an advertisement, but, it isn’t advertising the lawyer’s services. It is advertising that lawyer’s stupidity, desperateness, and cluelessness. I would advise any potential client who sees a “blog” that ends its posts that way to turn around, run away, fast as you can, and do not look over your shoulder.

To the lawyers that paid money to FindLaw: You’ve just been sucker-punched. You outsourced your marketing to FindLaw and this is what they created for people to find you. Worse still, some of FindLaw‘s posts may qualify as electronic ambulance chasing. We’re talking serious ethical issues here with e-chasing, and I wonder who the lucky lawyer will be that becomes the test case. When you outsource your marketing you outsource your ethics.

Second in line to get clobbered are the professor-commentators on its roster, such as Anthony Sebok, Marci Hamilton, Michael Dorf, Carl Tobias, Sherry Colb, Joanna Grossman, Neil Buchanan, and Julie Hilden, to name a few.

All of their work on FindLaw‘s Writ has now been instantly devalued and diminished by being associated with the BS-blogs that FindLaw created. Once upon a time it was a feather in the cap to be published by West’s FindLaw. Not any more. Do they care?

The professor-commentators now stand side-by-side with Emily Grube — the author who appears at several of the sites despite the fact they vary both by practice area and jurisdiction– whose bio says she is a “writing specialist” with “experience correcting papers created by freshmen to graduate students.”

Perhaps it’s understandable that FindLaw couldn’t hire more lawyers to write about the law, given this tight job market with firms now at capacity, actively recruiting and unemployed attorneys so difficult to find. It’s not required that a law blogger be a lawyer of course, as Walter Olson of Overlawyered and Point of Law demonstrates, but it just makes it a lot easier to recognize and discuss relevant legal issues.

It’s worth noting that many others stood up and took notice of FindLaw’s ugly conduct — during a holiday week, no less — including: FloridaLegal, Molly McDonough (ABAJournal), BlawgWhisperer (ABAJournal), Ron Coleman, Kevin O’Keefe, Nicole Black, Don Cruse; Lawrence Koplow; Tim Hughes; Copeland Casati; Ryan Daniels; Lydia Bednerik; Kevin Underhill; Gerry Oginiski; A Reasonable Suspicion; and Roy Mura. Some of those folks, also happen to have prominent blogs that FindLaw might rip-off next.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for the legal profession as a whole, FindLaw may have taken a smallish problem with a haphazard smattering of phony “blogs” that have popped up over the years, and given them (and newcomers) cover to act in the same unprofessional manner. Instead of raising the bar of discourse for lawyers they have lowered it. For if one of the pre-eminent names in the legal field thinks it’s OK to create a farkakte-blog (and you may have to hit that link unless you know a smattering of Yiddish), what message does that send to other lawyers? To the public? Is FindLaw now so desperate for business, so fearful of Martindale-Hubbell, Avvo and Google Scholar, that they are willing to race down to the muck and tarnish us all?

Greenfield wrote that:

For those of you who have placed their reputation in Findlaw’s hands, be prepared to be tainted by the company you keep.

But I think it is actually worse than that. While such dirt-blogs were previously confined to desperate lawyers here and there, FindLaw now opens the floodgates sewergates for lawyers to create slime for the web, for if it’s good enough for the once-vaunted Thomson West, it’s good enough for them.

Now if I could only find a good word to describe FindLaw’s number-two-blogs and their ilk. I know there’s a good one out there someplace. When others find that word, I’m sure it will hit the fan.


December 23rd, 2009

FindLaw — How Low Can They Go? (Stealing Blog Names)

I thought I was done blogging for the week, but I just learned that FindLaw, another one of those “venerable” names in the legal biz, has swiped my blog name. I kid you not.

They’ve created The New York Personal Injury Law Blog (all links here coded as “NoFollow”). The person that allegedly writes it, “Emily Grube,” doesn’t even show up in the New York directory of attorneys when I checked. She also writes the Philadelphia Personal Injury Law Blog, The New York Criminal Law Blog, and who knows how many others that are in start-up phase.

And, surprise, surprise, when you read the “articles” that are written they have a link at the bottom with the “call to action” to contact one of the lawyers that pay FindLaw to promote and advertise for them. As it happens, I know many of those on that list, and some are friends of mine. And you can bet your last dollar that I will let them know what FindLaw is up to, and they can decide for themselves if this is the type of conduct that they approve of.

How pathetic is FindLaw, anyway? Last year they were busted for selling links on their editorial content. Two weeks ago Scott Greenfield danced all over them for using the names of local criminal defense attorneys in their spammy solicitation to him.

Of course, one may try to say that my blog name is merely descriptive. But after three years of blogging and, I think, a fair amount of recognition across the legal blogosphere, it has taken on a distinctiveness all its own. I thought about sending them a note to alert them of my site. But then I realized that if they didn’t already know about my site, then they were really just too pathetic to believe. I mean, what lawyer would start up a blog without checking to see if the name was being used?

Find Law, which is owned by Thomson West, is an agent for the attorneys that pay them money for promotion. I suspect that these good folks just assumed that Find Law would act in ethical, proper ways and not try to sell links or steal blog names. But this is what their agent has been up to. Do law firms really want to be associated with a company that acts in such a swarmy way?

FindLaw, I’d like you to meet Martindale-Hubbell, both of whom seem not-too-far removed from LegalX and a bazillion other sites hustling their way across the web without seeming to care about their reputations.

They’ve ripped off my name now. Is yours next?

(Hat tip to John Hochefelder who found the “blog” and let me know)

Links to this post:

Call this “Notice”  
Mitchell Sassower is doing it. Marc J. Chase is doing it. Myron Kahn is doing it. Many others are doing it too, but those three are at the top of the list. What are they doing? They’re funding FindLaw’s crappy little rip-off (all above

posted by Mark Bennett @ January 06, 2010 2:50 PM
Due Diligence in Naming Your New Blog  
Findlaw vs. NY Personal Injury Law Blog: The Opening Salvo. Interrupting our Headway vs. Thesis Cage Match for just a moment, I wanted to share some thoughts prompted by the following tweet from BlawgWhisperer, the ABA Journal’s web
posted by Sheryl @ December 27, 2009 10:56 AM