Wednesday, April 7, 2010

There IS Such a Thing as "Bad Publicity"

As a crusader for compliance in the delivery of non-attorney legal services, I was shocked and dismayed to discover that I was “advertising” as an attorney – without my knowledge and most certainly without my consent. I urge all LDAs and freelance paralegals to do a little research to make sure you have not been caught in the same trap.

I periodically research my personal web presence and my company’s exposure on the internet; I want to see where my name appears, what people are saying, what websites refer to my content as a resource, etc.

In the past, this practice has helped me tremendously: I have identified – early on – infringement of my copyrighted material, and I have discovered many legal websites and resources which I have since incorporated into my practice. Recently, I discovered my LDA business, Red Sky Legal, was listed under “Attorneys – Estate and Probate” in AOL’s online yellow pages directory for several communities within San Diego County. I was in good company, however, with many LDAs (including a handful of ALDAP members) also listed on the same page, with “Attorneys” emblazoned across the top of the screen. I found this to be quite disturbing.

I have never advertised myself as an attorney or Red Sky Legal as a law firm. How could this happen?

The aforementioned AOL yellow pages directory “features” AT&T’s directory at (changing to It appears that AT&T is the source for the content displayed on AOL’s directory; my business has an enhanced profile in the AT&T directory and the artwork on AOL’s site matched the artwork from my AT&T listing.

Of course, I am not an attorney, and can be criminally prosecuted and have my business shut down for advertising that I am. One of the categories I chose for my listing in AT&T’s directory (the only advertisement I have actually placed or even consented to) was “Estate Planning, Probate and Living Trusts,” a category that includes a number of non-attorney service providers in addition to many traditional estate and probate lawyers. This seemed like a safe choice; it represents the work I do but clearly is NOT an “attorney” category.

However, when AOL pulled the data from AT&T over to their own directory, they took it upon themselves to change the category name to “Attorneys – Estate and Probate.” Ouch.

I started with my AT&T rep; I provided a lengthy explanation about how this simply cannot happen, particularly for an officer in an association that focuses its efforts on consumer protection and professional integrity! “This association investigates, collects consumer complaints, and forwards them to the authorities for prosecution – for doing things like illegally advertising as an attorney,” I explained. “How can I preside over an association that rails against fraud in the legal industry when my own ads are fraudulent and illegal?”

“AOL absolutely MUST change the heading for that category, to remove the word ‘attorney,’ lest my colleagues and I face potential criminal prosecution and seizure of our businesses (by the California State Bar), and certain harm to our reputations for engaging in what is perceived as fraudulent activity, which we never actually engaged in, never attempted to engage in, and never authorized.”

I also submitted this information via the “Send Feedback” form on the AOL yellow pages site.

I asked my AT&T ad rep for contact information for AT&T’s legal department, and independently located contact information for AOL’s legal department. I had hoped someone in the legal department would understand that it is in their best interest to rectify this situation immediately. They would understand that there are hungry lawyers out there who would like nothing more than to sue an LDA for unfair business practices; and that if I were served with such a complaint, the first thing I would do is cross-complain against AOL and AT&T.

Initially, the recommended “solution” was to change the categories of my AT&T listing – an unacceptable option. I pressed my AT&T rep further and he involved someone on the tech side to resolve it. A week later, I had not heard back from the tech contact but I did another search and noted that my business has been removed from AOL’s “attorney” category. Unfortunately, I don’t yet know what “worked.” Was it my AT&T rep’s efforts? The tech contact at AT&T? The email to AOL’s legal department? The two feedback form submissions directly to the AOL site? I may never know, but I am relieved that the message somehow got through to the right person.

My “attorney” listing has not yet been fully removed from Google’s cache, but I am confident that it will be shortly. When I Google my phone number, I get hits for AOL’s attorney categories in the various communities I serve; however, when I click on the links to the current pages I see that my company (and the other LDAs who were listed right there with me) no longer appears on the page.

I urge all LDAs to “audit” their internet presence. Google your phone number. Or Google your number plus the word “attorney” or “attorneys” and see if you discover that you have been unwittingly advertising as an attorney. If so, contact your ad rep immediately or the webmaster of the site displaying the offending listing. Most importantly, document every step of this process. Keep a record of your email correspondence; PDF those web-based “Feedback” form submissions before you click “Send”; keep a journal of dates and times you communicated (or attempted to communicate) with the website’s publisher; and if you have to send snail-mail, which may be necessary if electronic communications are ineffective, use Certified Mail and keep copies of the receipts.

If the DA or State Bar comes sniffing around (or that hungry lawyer sends his process server your way) you have documentation of your attempts to be a diligent and compliant member of the LDA profession.

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