Caution: The Best Marketers are not necessarily the Best Criminal Defence Lawyers
Caution: The Best Marketers are not necessarily the Best Criminal Defence Lawyers
THE PURPOSE OF LAWYER ADVERTISING
If you are reading this post, there is a reasonable likelihood that you are researching criminal lawyers in Alberta for hire. You probably typed in a few keywords, such as Calgary criminal lawyer, criminal lawyers in Calgary or Alberta criminal defence lawyers and then, like most Google or Bing searchers, fixated on the lawyers whose websites appeared on the first page – likely even at the top of the first page. For many keyword searches, my website – www.calgary-law.ca – will organically rank at or near the top of page one. However, I think for anybody searching for a criminal defence lawyer in Alberta or anywhere else, reliance on search engine rankings, paid advertising, so-called expert reviews allegedly identifying a lawyer as “the best” or even customer reviews, should be evaluated with caution.
This post will focus on lawyer advertising. I will often use my own website or Internet presence as an example to help you identify business strategy that does not necessarily correspond with actual skill or talent as a criminal lawyer. Please understand, though I think I am pretty good lawyer who has done some good work over the years, I don’t think you should blindly take my word for it. Please make sure that if and when you hire a lawyer, you do so only after exercising all due diligence.
The simple fact is, lawyers run a business and as part of that business, lawyers are trying to (1) attract your attention and (2) to convince you to open your wallet and to hire for services. As stated by Nancy Caruthers, Senior Manager, Policy and Ethics with the Law Society of Alberta:
“[a]dvertising has an obvious purpose. The best legal advertising is memorable, informative and assists members of the public to find lawyers who can help them with their legal problems. Effective advertising generates business and increases profits”.
Make no mistake, as lawyers, we advertise, have websites and advertise our websites because we are driven by a profit motive. Full disclosure: I run a business and am driven by a profit motive too.
ATTRACTING your ATTENTION
If you are reading this blog, I have successfully attracted your attention – the first step to potentially obtaining your business. Once I connect with you, the chance of my business turning a profit increases exponentially. However, just because I have a website, a Google ranking and am creatively using the topic of lawyer advertising to attract your attention (as well as search engine robots) doesn’t mean that you should necessarily hire me as your criminal defence lawyer. As I have candidly warned over the years, any lawyer can advertise, not every criminal lawyer can properly defend a case. Again, full disclosure: notwithstanding my hope that this article is informative, it also has a business motive.
With this in mind, rather than reading this post for the purpose of hiring me, I would prefer if you digested the commentary for the purpose of adding some tools to your toolbox so that you can ultimately make the best choice of lawyer for you.
When I say that any lawyer can advertise, I think it’s safe to say that the most fertile forum for self-aggrandizing lawyers is the Internet. It’s easy to laud oneself on a forum that virtually gives carte blanche to anybody to say whatever they want about whoever they want.
Of course, just because somebody lauds themselves, doesn’t mean their self praise is true. Take my website for example; why should you believe my claim that I am a “proven” criminal defence lawyer? In my opinion, based on my words alone, you shouldn’t; for it’s pretty easy for me to glorify myself using any number adjectives. Also, of course I am trying to sell you. Notwithstanding that much of my criminal law blog is written and designed to bring awareness to issues in criminal justice, it is also a prolific advertising platform. Accordingly, though there is a certainly a public interest component to my blogging, there is also a clear business objective: to attract you to my website.
Please, do not misunderstand, “I” think that “I” am a proven and experienced criminal lawyer, but that doesn’t mean you should myopically take my word for it. Also, keep in mind, I am advertising. I know I sound like a broken record. I am repeating this early so you understand that my hypocrisy has limitations. I am trying to attract your business and just because I advertise – or any lawyer advertises – doesn’t make the advertising lawyer a good lawyer or the right lawyer for you. To reiterate, it is your responsibility to choose wisely. My hope is that this post will give you a few tools to help make that choice.
EVALUATING THE ADJECTIVES
Keep in mind, every criminal lawyer gaming for clients on the Internet (or anywhere else) is likely communicating that they are “proven”, “skilled”, “reputable”, “highly qualified” and/or “experienced”. The adjectives may differ, but the message is essentially the same. Indeed, some of these lawyers may be speaking the truth, some not. Importantly, even where there is some truth to a lawyer’s claim to be “proven”, “skilled”, “experienced”, etcetera, there are very likely other lawyers who are more proven, more skilled, more experienced – generally more deserving of the same praise. As a person shopping for a criminal lawyer, how do you decide whether a particular laudatory claim made by lawyer in relation to him or herself warrants hiring that lawyer over another? I confess, unless you have some experience in the criminal justice system, this is likely very difficult. My warning to you is that anybody advertising (including me) can praise themselves.
Seriously, think about it.
Any lawyer who has handled a single case meets the basic definition of “experienced”, but as compared to a different lawyer who has handled many more cases, that lawyer is definitely less experienced. Therefore, though the definition “experienced” when applied to a lawyer is not necessarily untrue, it doesn’t really help when comparing one defence lawyer to another.
You might think that the number of years at the criminal bar is a useful metric for defining experience. Doubtless, it is relevant, but a word of caution: years at the bar does not necessarily tell you anything about that lawyer’s experience handling a particular kind of case. By way of example, a lawyer may have been called to the bar for decades but have less than 5 minutes of real experience dealing with certain matters, whereas a lawyer called to the bar for months may have plenty of experience navigating certain types of legal issues.
An advertising tactic that I find humorous is where a collection of lawyers claims to have a "collective" experience. I know of one instance where a law firm claimed to have in excess of seven decades of criminal law experience; however, when after evaluating all of the lawyers at the firm and subtracting the two senior counsel, the remainder of the shop averaged less than two-years of experience. Notice, the 75 years of collective experience as advertised shrinks quickly once you evaluate the individual lawyers. Also, remember, unlike big corporate commercial law firms where work can be disseminated amongst juniors, the model doesn't apply as conveniently in criminal law; for when a client hires senior trial counsel, a less honed and experienced junior may not suffice.
My point is, when retaining a criminal defence lawyer, I think it is very important to be sceptical about the claim of experience. I even suggest that some lawyers with multiple decades of experience could even be a little outdated. Accordingly, when evaluating a candidate’s alleged experience, don’t simply take their word at face-value. I advise that you communicate with many lawyers; listen to what they have to say and broadly compare and contrast what you learn from each interview. Take advantage of the free consultation that many (including me) offer.
Experience is but one factor. Though years of practice certainly lends to experience and though experience certainly allows one to hone skills, neither years of practice nor experience necessarily means one is skilled. Having been a member of the criminal bar since 2003, I am aware that there are lawyers who are “experienced” by virtue of their years in-practice, but as compared to other more junior lawyers are simply less skilled – sometimes much less.
To me, most “skilled” lawyers have experience. They needed the experience to develop their skills. However, just as some people are naturally more intelligent than others, some lawyers are more naturally skilled than others. For example, some people have very smooth and refined communication and public speaking skills; others, not so much. Since the life of a criminal defence lawyer is actually litigating cases, certain talents (such as strong public speaking skills) make for better advocacy. I know some trial lawyers with 25-30 years at the bar who can barely sputter a word. On the other hand, I know a few junior counsel whose public speaking skills are quite remarkable.
Of course, skilled communication is but one factor to good advocacy – for the best criminal defence lawyers are also very talented at evaluating the case, organizing their defence, tactically planning examinations and developing a defence theory according to legal principles. Some lawyers are also very good at getting to yes without actually litigating the case at trial. A lawyer’s ability to get-to-yes is an important skillset.
With all this in mind, when a lawyer claims to be skilled, I think the question you should ponder is, skilled at what? Is the lawyer a skilled communicator? Is there any evidence that the lawyer’s communication translates into skilled public speaking? Does the lawyer appear to have a natural affinity for criminal law? Is there a basis to believe that the lawyer is capable of evaluating your case and does the lawyer appear to know the law? To me, these are some things that you should be aware of when evaluating any candidate for hire.
PROVEN AND/OR SUCCESSFUL
Though “experience” appears to be the most commonly advertised claim, it is not the only one.
By way of example, scan down the list of lawyers on any Internet search and you will find a large number of them claiming to be “proven” and/or “successful”.
What does it mean to be “proven” or “successful”? The words are catchy, but like evaluating the claim of experience or skill, it is important drill-down for the purpose of understanding the basis on which the advertising lawyer makes the claim. To reiterate, it’s easy to dress oneself up in a Google Ad; it’s not as easy to translate a self-aggrandizing claim into a real defence when faced with a talented Crown Prosecutor.
Some criminal defence lawyers are proven winners, some not. Some lawyers are very successful at making money, others not. Though some lawyers are good at turning a buck, some are not by comparison as “successful” in achieving certain outcomes for their clients as others who turn fewer bucks. My point is, though many lawyers – including me – claim to be “successful” or “proven”, you need to do your own due diligence when evaluating the claim.
Ask yourself, how does the lawyer measure his or her success. Is it measured subjectively or objectively? Against what metric is the purported success measured? Why does a lawyer think that he or she is proven? It might be true that the lawyer has won a case here-and-there, but know this: it is possible for any lawyer, even the bad ones, to get lucky sometimes.
ADVERTISING AS THE BEST
We are now at a natural transition point into one of my pet peeves: lawyers who advertise themselves with adjectives such as “the best”. I have a real problem with this.
Some criminal defence lawyers boast to be “the best”, “the top”, with one shop actually claiming to be “the best Criminal Lawyer in Calgary”.
Though adjectives such as “skilled”, “reputable” and “experienced” may be true, advertising as “the best” or “the top” is not only arrogant; it is likely false advertising that runs afoul of Law Society Professional Code of Conduct rules. The Law Society of Alberta marketing rules are clearly outlined with commentary:
Marketing of Professional Services
4.2-1 A lawyer may market professional services, provided that the marketing is:
1. (a) demonstrably true, accurate and verifiable;
2. (b) neither misleading, confusing or deceptive, nor likely to mislead, confuse or deceive;
3. (c) in the best interests of the public and consistent with a high standard of professionalism.
 Examples of marketing that may contravene this rule include:
1. (a) stating an amount of money that the lawyer has recovered for a client or referring to the lawyer’s degree of success in past cases, unless such statement is accompanied by a further statement that past results are not necessarily indicative of future results and that the amount recovered and other litigation outcomes will vary according to the facts in individual cases;
2. (b) suggesting qualitative superiority to other lawyers;
3. (c) raising expectations unjustifiably;
4. (d) suggesting or implying the lawyer is aggressive;
5. (e) disparaging or demeaning other persons, groups, organizations or institutions;
6. (f) taking advantage of a vulnerable person or group; and
7. (g) using testimonials or endorsements that contain emotional appeals.
To my mind the Code of Professional Conduct contains rules that sometimes make little sense. The rule that a lawyer cannot advertise qualitative superiority over another by claiming that he or she is "the best" is not one of them. Claiming to be “the best”, “the top”, "the leading" or “the best Criminal Lawyer in Calgary” is not only, in my opinion, in clear violation of section 4.2 of the Professional Code of Conduct; it is arrogant in the extreme. Take my word for it, there are some phenomenal defence counsel in Calgary who you will not find on any Internet Search or any advertisement. Some don’t even have a website.
These are lawyers who don’t need a website, an Ad or some other cheesy way of attracting your attention because they don’t need to. They are good criminal defence lawyers because they are just damn good at what they do. One such example, the firm Ruttan Bates.
search engine ranking vs. the best
My point is, if a lawyer advertises as “the best”, “the top” or with other similar language, you should be extremely sceptical. The group above claiming to be the "Best Criminal Lawyer in Calgary" are certainly capable lawyers, but "the best"? In my opinion, as of January 2nd, 2021, not a chance.
I respect the real advocacy talents of some counsel and certainly respect the business acumen of others. However, I think it is important for you to understand that business acumen and talent as a lawyer are not necessarily the same thing. Just because a website like mine ranks in a Google search doesn’t necessarily mean that you should accept the ranking as synonymous with me being the best lawyer. In other words, not only is the claim of being “the top” lawyer potentially misleading there is no correspondence between having a top website and being a top lawyer. A person is a good lawyer because they have the talent and put in the effort to be a good lawyer. A lawyer is not necessarily a good lawyer because of online presence or marketing. To reiterate, any defence lawyer can laud themselves on the Internet, not every lawyer who hangs a shingle and takes on a criminal case can properly defend the charge.
Full disclosure: though I want you to hire me, I don’t think you should equate my Google ranking with my abilities as defence counsel. My website exists to attract your attention. My website exists to inspire you to pick up the telephone and call. Don’t be fooled, this article is also designed to attract your attention. However, now that I have your attention, if you decide to call, I recommend that you spend the time to evaluate whether I am the right hire for you. Similarly, if you decide to contact other criminal defence lawyers, you should do the same thing.
I will now transition to paid advertising and sponsored directories.
If you type the search term “Calgary criminal lawyers” you will see that some businesses are running a paid advertising campaign. Though I don’t presently run a paid advertising campaign on Google, Bing or any search engine, I don’t think there is anything wrong with this approach to business. That said, I am sure all of us have purchased a product based on an inspiring Advertisement only to be extremely disappointed with the product itself.
Lawyers run a business and just as I spend time developing and managing a website to attract your attention, other lawyers are in the business of doing the same thing. Internet search rankings are useful at attracting your attention; they are, however, not necessarily useful informing whether the lawyer advertising his or her business is best for you. Google credits advertisers by putting them at the top of the page of any search query that the advertiser is paying for. So remember, at the top of the page are businesses paying to attract your attention, not necessarily the businesses providing the best product or service. Accordingly, as I have stated on my website:
"Don't blindly trust a website or an advertisement (including this one). Any lawyer can sell you online, not every lawyer can properly defend a case".
Scanning below the top-of-the-page advertising on any search engine query, you will see websites that are organically placed (such as mine). You will also see a few sponsored directories such as “threebestrated”, “thebestcalgary” and “toplawyerscanada”. In my opinion, you should be very sceptical about these directories.
So you know that my hypocrisy has limits, I have appeared on “threebestrated”. I can tell you that until December 2020, I have never paid for a placement on threebestrated or any other ranking directory site.
By my assessment, threebestrated ranks businesses on the basis of two things: sponsorship and website evaluation. In fact, to obtain a license to use the threebesrated badge, the business must pay the directory for the right to use the badge. So when you see the badge on a website, know that the business has paid for it. In other words, a badge is not necessarily an award for stellar service.
I certainly have no problem with ranking directories charging a fee; for directories need to make money too. That said, I think it is important for everybody to understand that “threebestrated” and other similar ranking sites (such as “thebestcalgary”), rates products and services on qualities that may have little or nothing to do with the quality of the product or service itself.
Why do I say this?
Let me speak about “threebestrated” and “thebestcalgary”, beginning with the former.
Under the search term “Calgary DUI Lawyer” you will see that as of January 2nd, 2021, I rank in the “top 3”.
So you are aware, though "I" think that I am a good impaired driving lawyer (of course, that's up to you to decide), I do not accept the "threebestrated" ranking as a legitimate mark of achievement that makes me any better than a single one of the quality impaired driving lawyers in Calgary. Effectively, what this directory is telling you is that I have a good website, some reviews and have been defending DUI cases for a long time. None of these evaluating factors means that I am "the best" or even a top 3 impaired driving lawyer. I would like to think that I am, but my ego has nothing to do with reality.
What's hilarious is that the two other DUI lawyers recognized by "threebestrated" have apparently been defending cases since 1972 and 1976 respectively.
They must truly be child progenies because in 1972 and 1976 these lawyers were between "not born" and 4 years of age. By the way, my year of call to the Alberta bar is 2003.
More importantly, though I am certainly of the view that impaired driving constitutes a niche practice that not every criminal defence lawyer is as technically proficient, I am also aware that there are some exceptionally capable impaired driving lawyers not ranked on the "threebestrated" directory. To my mind, you can’t have a legitimate best rated Calgary DUI Lawyer ranking without talking about the likes of Allan Kay, Tim Foster or Ian Savage. By the way, these lawyers are my competition. I want to take business from them, but in gaming for your business, I can't say that these guys are not prominent impaired driving lawyers. They are good at what they do.
Now I am not saying that the lawyers ranking as the “the best DUI lawyers” are necessarily underserving (in fact, I am very aware that Greg Dunn has done some really good impaired driving work); rather, I am simply highlighting that Kay, Foster and Savage have spent multiple decades paving impaired driving law in Calgary and as such, any directory claiming to rate the best that does not mention at least one of them, arguably lacks credibility.
To my mind, a much more critical analysis can be applied to the directory ranking for “Calgary criminal lawyers”. Searching this phrase you will find both “threebestrated” and “thebestcalgary”. Now, without specifically targeting any lawyer listed in these directories, I will opine that both not only list criminal lawyers who by any standard would 'not' be considered “the best”, but fail to highlight lawyers who, on a peer-to-peer evaluation, would, at a minimum, be in the conversation as “the best”. For example, how can we have a directory ranking Calgary’s “8 best” criminal defence lawyers without having at least one (if not all) of Patrick Fagan, Richard Cairns or Noel O’Brien. In my opinion, we can't. In fact, in my opinion, there are a number of counsel on these ranking directories who would be laughed out the "the best criminal lawyer" conversation". If that is so, we can't take the ranking seriously.
Drilling down into the directory "thebestcalgary", reveals a number of clear credibility and reliability issues.
To begin with, the introduction about defence lawyers by writer Lucas Herbert exposes an American element. Notice, the introduction uses the word "felony" (not a recognized legal term in Canada) and highlights that "public defender's offices assign cases" (a model that applies to Legal Aid appointments in Canada but not really to choosing or hiring a criminal lawyer). It is noteworthy that Legal Aid in Alberta does not assign files on a "best lawyer" standard.
Also, the so-called "best" lawyers listed on thebestcalgary directory were all out-ranked by a legal information website called Law Advice Now. Reading the homepage for Law Advice Now clearly revealed a gap in understanding criminal law. This should not be inspiring for anybody looking to hire a capable criminal lawyer, let alone the best one. Notice, Law Advice Now offers no information about criminal law; rather, it speaks about "a process for businesses who are unable to pay off debts" and speaks about "bankruptcy". Bankruptcy, debt and criminal law are not the same practice areas. Accordingly, in my opinion, the information on Law Advice Now raises trust issues and if the number 1 ranked directory listing on "thebestcalgary" has trust issues, the ranking site, by extension, lacks reliability and credibility.
My point is, if a directory claiming to rank “the best” fails to rank those who would be in the conversation as "the best" how can we trust the ranking? More troubling, if the ranking clearly contains people (or organizations) who would not be in the conversation as "the best", how can we trust the ranking? Finally, if the directory ranking site lauds people, organizations or other websites that apparently should not be ranked at all, how can we trust the ranking?
To my mind, we can't. To my mind, you shouldn't.
Of note, I have previously ranked on threebestrated under the search term “Calgary criminal lawyer”. In all honesty, for the aforementioned reasons, this is nothing short of a dubious honour. I say this acknowledging that I am competing for business. However, I think there is a right way to earn accolades in the legal profession and a wrong way. In my opinion, directory rankings based on anything other than peer-evaluated raw talent and respect is not the right way.
Now I am not saying that I am not a good lawyer. "I" think I am. I am not saying that some of the lawyers on the best rated directories are not good lawyers, I think some are. Rather, I am saying that a directory ranking may not be a credible or reliable source for comparing or evaluating lawyers. Therefore, just as you should not be fooled by ad placement, organic search engine rankings or even a website, you should be very cautious when reviewing directory rankings. These kinds of directories arguably rank websites and/or paid sponsors, not the actual quality of lawyer him or herself.
It is now a good time to shift to my final topic: lawyer reviews.
If you are searching for a criminal lawyer, I am sure you are looking at reviews. I have nearly 50 five-star Google reviews. Some firms have hundreds of five-star Google reviews.
I certainly think that evaluating reviews is important, but like anything, you should still be very careful.
To begin with, I guarantee that not every Google review on every businesses Google platform is genuine. Also, accumulating reviews – especially Google reviews – requires some effort. Frankly, I respect the business model of some firms that clearly make every effort to accumulate reviews. However, I can tell you from experience that most clients don’t independently review their lawyer online; in fact, since making an earnest effort to collect Google Reviews from about late-2019 until now, it is my experience that unless a request is made, accompanied by clearly written how-to instructions, most clients will not leave a review. In other words, leaving a review to chance – even when exceptional service has been provided – is a recipe for no review at all.
Prior to late 2019 my attitude was, let reviews accumulate organically. In all honesty, that didn’t work. In my experience, to get a positive review, I needed to pursue it. I imagine it’s the same for all businesses, including defence lawyers.
I have also learned that some lawyers even pay money for reviews. Full disclosure, I don’t do this. Though I don’t engage in this practice, I wish to be clear, I don’t necessarily fault businesses who do. I have good information that at least one law office in Alberta refunds money in exchange for a five-star review. Business is competitive and if this is a way of getting an edge, so be it.
The reason I highlight the topic of reviews is simply so that you have all of the information to effectively evaluate them. I appreciate you might not get a straight answer from any business about the veracity of their reviews, but knowing that at least some of a businesses reviews may be paid for or perhaps not even legitimate is important.
As aforementioned, I am very confident that not all reviews are genuine.
Again, full disclosure. I have two reviews that are not from genuine clients. One was from a friend who left a review while we were socializing over cocktails and another from a colleague who I assisted with some legal advice. To write a Google Review, all one needs is a “gmail” account. At present, Google does not have any better verification protocols than that.
My point is, when searching for a criminal lawyer to hire, I suggest that reviews constitute an important piece of any evaluation, but as with everything, a measure of scepticism is advised. Keep in mind, there are some high-quality criminal lawyers in Calgary who have zero reviews – perhaps even the odd one who has a negative review. Remember, a negative review can occur for any number of reasons that are not necessarily rationally connected to the quality of the legal service provided. Of course, some negative reviews are real. My point is, a lack of reviews does not mean the unreviewed lawyer does bad work. A negative review doesn’t mean that the negatively rated lawyer does bad work. Remember, some lawyers don’t have reviews because for one reason or another, they don’t seek them out. Also remember, that a lawyer -- like me -- who has several dozens of reviews, might mean that the lawyer is really good at chasing them down, where some lawyers who have very few or no reviews may not pursue them at all. It's also possible that some (or even many) reviews are fake.
In conclusion, I definitely think that search engine rankings and advertising are useful business tools. I respect those with business acumen who are able to capitalize on ethical business practices that assist their bottom line. Some of the most highly ranked lawyers on the Internet(including me) have a really good understanding about search algorithms and as such, are able to place on a search where others are not. So you are aware, while I understand a lot about search engine algorithms, I think my website does well simply because I put a lot of time and effort into it. To that end, though a search engine such as Google rewards its paid advertisers it also rewards those who work hard.
As a result of my time and energy, I am acutely aware of the websites, the players and the advertising that goes into driving a criminal law practice. Where I am concerned is that the Internet is a potentially dangerous playground, packed with information traps designed to not only attract your attention but to get into your wallet. My website is one built for a business purpose.
The point of this article is to inform you about some of the pitfalls of relying on advertising, search rankings and other sources of information designed to influence your choice in selecting a criminal defence lawyer.
If you have been charged with a criminal offence, you need to defend your case against a system that is heavily weighted against you. I genuinely want you to do your due diligence by hiring the right lawyer. If that means you don’t hire me, so be it. The stakes are high. The right criminal lawyer is not necessarily the one that attracts attention with an ad, a website or a ranking – the right criminal defence lawyer is the one who can do the job.
On my website, I have told you to act with due diligence and to choose wisely. However, it's somewhat hypocritical for me to tell you to choose wisely without arming you with some tools to allow you to do so. I hope this article helped. I think that I have shed at least a small part of my hypocrisy.
I wish you all the best in your search.
Calgary Criminal Lawyer