Scott Greenfield’s first to blog about news  of a RICO by a Michigan law firm, Seikaly & Stewart against Stephen Fairley and The Rainmaker Institute. The firm alleges that the Institute created  a “bogus Internet marketing program, supposedly designed for small law firms and sole practitioners”  and duped firms (in this case, to the tune of $49k) to participate in the program through a series of fraudulent misrepresentations about the company’s ability to boost law firms’ Google rankings. [Source: Courthouse News. You can also view the actual complaint here.]

For Scott, this lawsuit highlights the kind of stuff he’s been blogging about all along: that SEO schemes just don’t work. Consequently, Scott doesn’t have much sympathy for either side:

Did Fairley lie to Seikaly & Stewart? How would anyone know, since the entirety of internet marketing schemes are based on deception and manipulation? And were Seikaly & Stewart victimized by Fairley’s unkept promises? It’s beyond ironic that a firm seeking to buy its way to prominence from a marketeer complains that it was out-deceived. It’s not that they have no cause of action, having paid a pretty sweet sum to the Rainmaker Institute and gotten bupkis in return, but that when someone seeks to game the system and got played in return, it’s just awfully hard to feel badly about the whole thing.

As for me, regardless of the outcome, I’m glad that the firm brought this lawsuit if only to shed some light on lawyer marketers.  Though unlike Scott, I believe that there are lawyers who have succeeded through strategic use of smart SEO (either homegrown juice, or working with a trusted company), on the whole, my guess is that most of these high-priced marketing/SEO or lead generation schemes don’t work. At all.  Trouble is, most lawyers are embarrassed to call these companies out for fear of looking foolish.  Worse, they’ll have been brainwashed by these companies, who have no skin in the game themselves, to believe that if a campaign doesn’t work, it’s the firm’s fault for lacking the skill to close the deal. So a firm will take the $20,000 or $50,000 loss and keep its mouth shut instead of shining a light on these charlatans.

But it’s not just lawyers afraid to speak out. The bar associations are complicit as well – and that’s the worst part of it.  Many of these marketing companies sponsor state and local bar events or are even invited to speak since they’ll do it for free. As a result, they gain credibility; many lawyers assume that the bar wouldn’t allow a company that it hasn’t vetted to sponsor an event.  But that’s not the case, and when money talks to the bars, they listen.

Most lawyers aren’t going to sue marketing companies. Even for $49,000, it’s not worth the time and effort.  But there’s no shame in making a marketing mistake, so if a company lead you astray, let others know about it. We’ll never rid the profession of web-based marketing – and I don’t have any problem with that. But at the very least, given that internet marketing is here to stay, individual lawyers and bar associations should ensure more accountability and transparency by demanding that marketers disclose costs, success rates and ROI, and insist that they take some responsibility for results.

On the theory that we can only sell what we know, then we as lawyers, we should have serious concerns about marketers using deceptive practices teaching or helping other lawyers to market. The apple won’t fall from the tree.