The day after the Washington, D.C., Metro crash killed nine people and injured another 76, Andrew Alpert decided to try an experiment. The partner at Upper Marlboro, Md.’s Meng & Alpert bought the rights to www.metroaccident.com and set up the domain name to redirect users to his firm’s Web site.
“I wanted to see whether I would get a reaction,” Alpert said. He did, although perhaps not the one for which he was hoping. “The reaction I’m getting is from other lawyers mostly,” he said.
While Alpert’s venture has yet to net any new clients, it does put him in broad company. Plaintiffs lawyers inside and outside the Beltway have been reaching out to victims of the June 22 Metro accident any way they can. It’s early days yet, but so far the old-fashioned methods like word-of-mouth seem to be working best.
Of the first five suits filed against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in D.C. federal and local courts, four involve attorneys who received referrals from other lawyers or had prior relationships with the victim’s family.
Washington solo practitioner Michael Wilson, who has filed two suits, said his clients came to him from other lawyers. The camera-friendly Willie Gary of Stuart, Fla.-based Gary Williams Finney Lewis Watson & Sperando was called in by, and is working with, Washington attorney Keith Watters of Keith Watters & Associates on behalf of a mother and daughter hospitalized after the crash. Watters had represented the mother before. And Washington lawyers David Haynes and Stephen Annand of The Cochran Firm were contacted by William Kennedy of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.’s DiStefano Bossola & Kennedy in the first wrongful death case. Kennedy had done work for the victim’s mother, who called him after the disaster.
Lawrence Lapidus, a Washington partner at Karp Frosh Lapidus Wigodsky & Norwind, filed the very first lawsuit over the crash. He credits “reputation” with bringing in his clients.
WE’RE ON THE WEB
Alpert is not the only local lawyer to try Web advertising. Washington-area firms Bode & Grenier; Greenberg & Bederman; and Koonz McKenney Johnson DePaolis & Lightfoot have all bought sponsored links on Google that appear above the search engine’s results. So far, the investments have not paid clear dividends.
Peter Grenier said his firm has not been retained by any crash victims. Roger Greenberg, whose firm is representing “four or five” victims, doubts the sponsored link brought them in. And Koonz partner William Lightfoot said, “We do represent people involved in the crash, but candidly we had them before we got the sponsored link.”
Other online marketing attempts have produced bad publicity. With its slapdash design, www.metrotrainaccident.com raised hackles at the blog “Overlawyered” and at Washington City Paper , which reported that a group of East Coast firms was behind the site. When the toll-free number was called more recently, a person who identified himself only as a lawyer named “Dave” said the project “was not up and running anymore.”
The winning Web strategy may belong to Traverse Legal. The six-lawyer firm based in Traverse City, Mich., managed to navigate its blog to the top of Google’s search results. Last week, if you searched for “Metro crash” and “lawyer,” Traverse Legal’s site was the first or second hit. Partner Enrico Schaefer said the firm has picked up four clients and been contacted by “numerous” Metro workers interested in providing information.
RUMORS OF RUNNERS
While such Web strategies are legal in the District of Columbia, a D.C. law bans the use of runners — the much-maligned freelancers who track down victims for personal injury firms. And the D.C. Bar’s ethics code bars soliciting a potential client when he or she is “in a physical or mental condition which would make it unlikely that the potential client could exercise reasonable, considered judgment.” Hospitals are considered off-limits.
There are accusations that the rules are being broken. Patrick Regan of Washington’s Regan Zambri & Long, who has been retained by two victims, said one client was solicited by someone else while still in the hospital. Lapidus said the same. And Kennedy said his client’s family has been approached by several people about legal services, most of whom wouldn’t identify themselves. “It’s really bad what’s going on out there,” he said. However, all three lawyers declined to point fingers at anybody in particular.
Jordan Weissmann is a reporter for The National Law Journal , a Legal affiliate based in New York. •