We get this question a lot – Is buying legal leads ethical, or will I get in trouble with the bar association? Can Lawyers Buy Leads?
Legal lead generation tends to get miscategorized quite a bit, since a lot of attorneys are used to the case referral business model, in which another law firm signs of the case, and for whatever reason they don’t have the resources, the desire, or the expertise to settle that case. Rather than negotiate with the insurance company or take that case to court themselves, they’ll refer the case over to another law firm that’s just better equipped to handle it. Typically, there is no charge for the case referral, but the referring attorney/law firm will take a percentage… typically a third of the final attorneys fees on that lawsuit or settlement.
The attorney pay per lead program, or legal lead generation, is a much different animal from that. Here we’re going to talk about the differences between a referral and lead, and talk a little bit about the rules regarding lawyers buying leads as defined by the American Bar Association. We’ll also talk a bit about what to look for when buying leads from a third party lead generation company, to make sure that they are compliant with bar rules.
Before we get started with the ABA rule, a note about different states… just like all state car accident laws are different, the bar association in every state is different as well. Every Bar Association does have different variations on what the rules are and what’s allowed. And what’s not. Obviously, everything is also open to a bit of interpretation, and there can be grey areas depending on your definition. So it’s always a good idea to do your due diligence with your own State Bar if you have any concerns.
Before getting into the differences between legal leads and case referrals, let’s clarify the American Bar Association stance on this. More specifically this is the Bar Association rule 7.2. -the section that discusses paying others to recommend a lawyer.
Paying Others To Recommend A Lawyer  A lawyer may pay others for generating client leads, such as Internet-based client leads, as long as the lead generator does not recommend the lawyer, any payment to the lead generator is consistent with Rules 1.5(e) (division of fees) and 5.4 (professional independence of the lawyer), and the lead generator’s communications are consistent with Rule 7.1 (communications concerning a lawyer’s services).. To comply with Rule 7.1, a lawyer must not pay a lead generator that states, implies, or creates a reasonable impression that it is recommending the lawyer, is making the referral without payment from the lawyer, or has analyzed a person’s legal problems when determining which lawyer should receive the referral..
Is it a Legal Lead or Case Referral?
In plain English, what that means is that as long as the lead generation company (the third-party company that’s generating the lead – by lead I mean somebody who has visited a third-party company’s website and filled out a form asking for a free consultation with an attorney to discuss a particular legal problem) doesn’t specifically recommend or make claims about the legal expertise/qualifications of their law firm client, and discloses to the person asking for help that the lawyers receiving the leads have paid to participate and that no legal assessment of their situation has been made by filling out the form, buying leads is ethical for lawyers.
A key the difference between that and a case first and foremost, is that with a lead nobody- certainly not a legal professional – has ever spoken to this person, heard their legal situation, made any claims as to whether or not they may or may not have a case, or anything of the sort.
With a referral a law firm is actually going to have an attorney their intake staff listen to that person’s unique individual circumstances… Then as somebody with legal training and/or a law license then say “okay, this is a case we’re going to go ahead and sign you up.” Then we’re going to go ahead and now recommend you to another law firm to handle your case, based on your situation.
The big difference here is that a legal professional is actually speaking to somebody prior to making an assessment and signing the client. With somebody filling out a form, just like if somebody filled out a form on a law firms’ website, every lawyer website that I’ve ever seen has some sort of a disclaimer that says “this contact form does not constitute an attorney-client relationship”. No services are being retained by submitting a web form… it’s merely an inquiry and a request for a consultation.
Same thing goes for legal lead generation companies – a lead is just an inquiry, and somebody who wants to discuss their situation with a legal professional. In this scenario, the lead generation company is merely the conduit through which the consumer the person looking for an attorney can find somebody to speak to about their legal issue.
Can Lawyers Buy Leads if it’s a Live Transfer Pay Per Call Lead?
A live transfer lead is no different from a form submitted on a website, as long as all the above criteria are met. So the agent taking/transferring the call can ask questions about the case details as a means to qualify that lead, but cannot get that lead to sign a specific firm’s retainer agreement. Likewise, they can’t say things like “we’re going to send you to abc law firm, they’re the best attorneys in the state” that could give the impression they are recommending the firm.
Once that conversation happens, then potentially the law firm that speaks to the person submitting the inquiry, and upon signup could make a referral to another law firm. But in that transfer, there is no referral made because it’s merely the transfer of an inquiry.
Legal Lead Generators Can’t Promote Individual Law Firms
Also Rule 7.1 is referenced in the ABA rule 7.2 – 7.1 says you can pay for leads which, which States to comply with rule 7.1 a lawyer must not pay a lead generator that states, implies, or creates a reasonable impression that it’s recommending the lawyer making the referral without payment, or that it is attempting to analyze the person’s legal problems. Effectively what that means is that any of the generation company can sell leads to a lawyer as long as a few things happen…
First, the lead generation company cannot specifically recommend the lawyer. Using auto accident leads as an example… to comply with the ABA rules here, the ad and landing page that’s being used to generate the lead can say:
“Get a free consultation with a local auto accident attorney to discuss your claim”.
However, it cannot say:
“Get a free consultation with Jones and Smith… The best car accident attorneys in the state of Texas!”
That would be against the American Bar Association’s rules, as it’s creating a reasonable impression that the lead generator is recommending the client. If it’s generic, and it simply says you may be entitled to compensation – if you’d like a free consultation with an auto accident attorney, please fill out our form and we will have somebody to contact you. Makes a big difference in that you’re not recommending any one specific firm.
That that would be the first part of 7.1, which you will want to vet prior to signing up with a legal lead generation company. The other two parts are covered by making sure that their website and any page is where the person would fill out a form, have a disclaimer that effectively says:
“We are not analyzing your legal problem. We are not claiming that we’re going to help with your legal problem… we are a third, party matching service that provides information and connects consumers with law firms to can discuss their claim.”
And then somewhere in the disclaimer states that the lead generator is being compensated by the law firms that participate in the program.
So essentially what it boils down to is a lead generator is not allowed to sign the person up, then sell that case to a law firm. A lead generator can vet the person via web form to make sure that they meet a set of criteria, which generally all legal lead generation companies do. But no lead generators can talk to the client and sign them up, or claim that they are providing law firms with cases. These are leads, they’re not cases… there’s a big difference.
A lead being merely a request for information by somebody who meets a predefined criteria, whereas a case is somebody who’s been vetted by a legal professional.
There also can’t be any a preference given… so if there are let’s say two law firms and given territory any leads have to be rotated evenly and fairly and there can’t be any, any you know looking at the leads and saying “This lead looks good, and law firm A is a friend of mine, or is paying me a little more money per lead, so I’m going to send this lead to them.”
So as long as those are all met, in general per the American Bar Association, lawyers can buy leads. As always, if you’re concerned, it’s always best to call your local bar association. But having done business in all 50 states you know in general most state bars will defer to the ABA, and the ABA has stated that given things meets these criteria, their blessing has been given. So, make sure you do your homework, make sure you’re finding a legal lead generation company that does meet all these criteria. Ask to see what their website looks like what the ads that the consumer sees looks like make sure that they’re compliant with all of these things, and you should be good to go.