Computers now have an unsettling ability to offer you goods or services apparently based on the fact that you once searched for something. Thus, it seems that every time I go online to read the New York Times, I will see side-bar and pop-up ads for bicycles, tattoos, and (I have no idea why) body part enhancement. Lately, folks have been offering me “leads” to clients who need legal services.
I once litigated a case against a Chicago company that sold leads. During the run-up to the hearing, they changed their business model to one of cooperative advertising. Thus, the Statewide Grievance Committee dismissed the case, though noting that “on slightly different facts” the result would have been different. In some kind of cosmic karmic pay-back, now every time I go to “the Google” for something, I get offers such as these:
• Get 10 FREE Leads for joining!
• We sell leads for Bankruptcy, Divorce, Criminal Defense, DUI, Social Security and Personal Injury.
• We offer pay-per-lead pricing, meaning you only pay for the leads you receive.
• We are an online lead generation service providing attorneys with pre-screened leads from consumers looking for an attorney in your location and practice area.
One site offers a price list:
• Bankruptcy: $20/Lead
• Business Law: $15/Lead (Contracts and Business Agreements, Incorporation and Corporate Law, Formation and Dissolution)
• Civil Rights: $12/Lead (Defamation, Non-Work Related Harassment, Discrimination)
• Collection & Debt: $15/Lead (Credit Reports, Debt Settlement, Collecting on Debts)
One site doesn’t even require me to provide legal services. I can get paid if I send them leads: “Join our Affiliate Program and earn $2.50 for each new case you refer to us.”
Apparently, the way this works is that I put the company’s name on my website, and if anyone visiting me clicks through to them, I get paid. Dang! I think I will include a button which reads, “Want a better lawyer than Dubois? If so, click here.” I will be rich!
All of this sounds really cool, if I weren’t so concerned that this stuff also happens to be a felony. You see, Connecticut has an anti-ambulance-chasing law in the form of Statutes 51-87 which reads, in part:
(a) Any person who (1) pays, remunerates or rewards any other person with something of value to solicit or obtain a cause of action or client for an attorney-at-law or (2) employs an agent, runner or other person to solicit or obtain a cause of action or a client for an attorney-at-law or (3) pays, remunerates or rewards any other person with something of value for soliciting or bringing a cause of action or a client to an attorney-at-law or (4) pays, remunerates or rewards with something of value a police officer, court officer, correctional institution officer or employee, a physician, any hospital attache or employee, an automobile repairman, tower or wrecker, funeral director or any other person who induces any person to seek the services of an attorney or (5) pays, remunerates or rewards any other person with something of value to induce him to bring a cause of action to, or to come to, an attorney or to seek his professional services shall be fined not more than one thousand dollars or imprisoned not more than three years or both.
The legislative history of the statute is fun to read. There is testimony from some big-wigs in the bar about how evil ambulance chasers are, that they are below contempt, and how they should be driven from the temple. There is also a rejoinder from someone only described as “Attorney Cole” who argued (apparently to no avail) that folks ought to be allowed to refer their friends to good lawyers, and it did not matter a bit if the lawyer repaid the favor with a few bucks.
I think this fella may have been the late Cyril Cole, a legend in the Hartford personal injury bar. He was reputed to be cut from such cloth that he would not hesitate to appear at the legislature to defend ambulance chasing as a constitutional right.
When I was prosecuting the lead-selling case, I wrote to Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane’s office, asking if his crew would consider prosecuting my case under the statute. They took a pass, but, as did the Statewide Grievance Committee, said that, on slightly different facts, they would not hesitate to do so.
Fifty years after the statute was passed, I get daily offers of “hot leads.” I am sorely tempted, but fear jail. I wish attorney Cole were here to take up my cause. Selling leads might be a lot easier than practicing law.•