“Greedy”, “ambulance-chasers”, “lacking in integrity”, “contributing little to society”. These are just some of the ways members of the public apparently see us. Well, according to polling agencies like Gallup and the Pew Research Centre, that is.

Gallup’s ‘Honesty and Ethics in Professions’ poll asks the public to assess which occupations – out of 20 – they regard as having the greatest probity. They’ve been running these polls since 1971. Nurses have consistently featured top, followed by teachers, doctors, police officers, clergymen, etc.

In Gallup’s poll in December 2020, lawyers finished fifth from the bottom, ahead of insurance salesman, car salesmen, and members of Congress – but below nursing home practitioners, journalists and bankers. This result is fairly consistent over the last 40 years. 
Gallup’s findings were endorsed some years earlier in 2013 by the Pew Research Centre which asked the public to assess which professions contributed “a lot” to society’s “wellbeing”. You guessed it – lawyers finished dead last.

What does all this mean? It may mean that the public simply does not trust us. It may also mean that the public are highly dubious of professions that seek to persuade them to alter their views.

Powers of persuasion?

But that’s in large measure what we lawyers do. We try to persuade others, through legal argument, that they ought to trust us – and that our position ought to prevail. In the realm of the courtroom, that approach may succeed. In the realm of the internet, where establishing trust is paramount, it often fails –sometimes miserably.

Why? Why does it fail so dismally? Why do so many lawyers report being utterly fed up with their experience of attracting new business online? There are two likely reasons: your website – and the people who designed it.

Does your website contain such enlightening phrases as ‘best’, ‘specialist’, ‘client-focused’, ‘expert’, ‘wealth of experience’, ‘results-driven’? These phrases are mere claims, dry and meaningless. The public don’t believe them. Nobody believes them. Remember the Carbolic Smoke Ball case of 1892? If you’re like me then perhaps, vaguely. Phrases like these were deemed to be ‘mere advertising puffery’ – in other words, not to be taken seriously. So why do you allow your legal website to be filled with them? Do you think clients believe this stuff?

Here’s some more. What about ‘cost-effective legal advice’, ‘competitive prices’ etc? Do you know what expressions like these conjure in the public mind? Of course you do. Cheap and therefore rubbish. Nobody wants substandard legal advice. And yet lawyers up and down the country have variations of these deadly phrases peppered around their site. “But I didn’t design the website!” I hear you say. Of that, I have no doubt. But it was designed by others who should have known.

Your website and its content was likely designed by a digital marketing company. SEO practitioners have cannibalised online marketing for businesses everywhere by spewing forth a multitude of questionable claims and doling out useless little ‘human insight’ pellets from their marketing Pez dispenser.

They tell you what your website ‘needs’ and what clients ‘want’. The public are regarded by these people as a giant, clueless, amorphous blob who think alike and believe everything they read online. This is a huge error. The public are intelligent and very discerning, extremely so. They’re your mother, father, sister, brother or partner. When they read vacuous, generic drivel on a legal website it insults their intelligence.

Smoke and mirrors?

It is a universal truism of virtually every single SEO company that ‘targeting’ consumers via AdWords and filling up lawyer websites with bland, meaningless phrases such as “building lasting relationships with clients”, “making the law work for you” or “priding ourselves on our high level of client care” is a pathway to increased business.

Let me make this clear: clients are not interested in forging ‘relationships’ with their lawyers. In fact – no disrespect – most of them never want to see us again when the case is finished. They need us to get a job done and that’s it. That’s the level of ‘relationship’ they’re willing to commit to. As for a phrase like ‘making the law work for you’, what does that even mean? Precisely, it means nothing– so get rid of it, and others besides.

Now, as for AdWords: consumers don’t click on them. You read that right. They don’t click on ads because they hate ads. You know this is true because you don’t click on ads online either. SEO practitioners’ understanding of human behaviour is based on ‘assumed rationality’. Rationally, if there’s an Ad for my firm at the top of page 1 of Google, I assume I’ll receive an avalanche of calls from prospective clients. But I don’t – because the public knows I paid to be at the top of page 1 – and they don’t like that. They despise being ‘targeted’. That’s why lawyers who spend so much on Ads become so frustrated.

Any SEO practitioner who knows what they’re doing should know this. Humans are not logical and don’t always act rationally. If they did, they wouldn’t follow football teams that lose every week, or stay in dysfunctional relationships for far too long.

What about the notion that modern consumers are now somehow different? SEO practitioners frequently wrap up what they do in a sort of impenetrable technological gobbledegook declaring that in the age of the internet, people have somehow ‘changed’. We therefore need these high priests of technology to ‘interpret’ this ‘changing person’.

This is undiluted gibberish. People are not changing. In the 1960s, one of advertising’s greatest creative minds, Bill Bernbach, remarked that it was “fashionable to talk about the changing man. A communicator must be concerned with the unchanging man. Human nature hasn’t changed in a billion years. It won’t even change in the next billion years. Only the superficial things have changed”.

Putting persuasion to proof?

The irony of all of this is that we lawyers, who argue propositions in court based on case law and precedent, have surrendered our presence online to individuals who espouse positions based on untested and unscientific arguments.

They’ll point to your position on page 1 of Google as ‘proof’ that they’ve ‘done their bit’. Well, no – they haven’t. Being on page 1 of Google isn’t the end of the matter: it’s just the beginning.

Your legal website is your advertising platform – and it’s reflective of who you are and what you believe in. If it contains information that is self-indulgent, vague, dull or irrelevant, it is a waste of your money.

Bernbach and his contemporary David Ogilvy created ads for some of the world’s biggest brands. It was always about the bottom line. The client had to make money from the ads they commissioned. Ogilvy believed this so fervently that plaques were erected throughout his company’s offices so that everyone knew what the firm’s core belief was. “We sell” they read “or else”.

If you’re not making money from your website, the SEO company you hired to design it has not done the job that you paid them for. What does the public want? In a word, ‘reassurance’. Reassurance about what? Reassurance that we’re not greedy ambulance-chasers who lack integrity. Demonstrating this on your website should be your number one priority.

Patrick Horan is the Managing Partner of Patrick Horan Solicitors: phoransolicitors.com

In 2018 he co-founded Legal Index Ireland, a legal marketing website which uses advanced artificial intelligence to position law firms on page 1 of Google. Today, Legal Index Ireland is the most visited website in Ireland for people seeking legal services: legalindexireland.com

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