Law Firm Bloggers Are Missing Opportunity to Engage on Policy Issues
A narrow focus on marketing and search engine optimization is a missed opportunity for law firm bloggers to shape public policy in a way that benefits their clients and their practices.
Several months ago news outlets reported an alarming statistic: The maternal death rate in the United States is worse than any other developed nation. What’s more, between 2000 and 2014, the maternal death rate rose 27 percent in the United States, according to a research report published in the September 2016 issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology.
And then this: Researchers found that while California succeeded in decreasing its numbers, maternal death rates in Texas climbed like no other state in the nation. In Texas in 2010, 72 women died of complications related to pregnancy. By 2012, that number had more-than-doubled to 148.
A “maternal death” is the death of a woman that occurs during her pregnancy, during childbirth, or shortly after childbirth.
None of the articles I read made a connection between the Texas civil justice system and the tragic state of maternal mortality in the state. In fact, to the extent that an explanation was offered, fingers were pointed at the state government’s failure to fund women’s health programs (e.g., Planned Parenthood) and the high number of uninsured Texas residents. Twenty percent of Texas residents lack health insurance. No state other state performs worse.
I recently wrote a longish article on medical malpractice for a Texas law firm, where I learned that Texas has a very aggressive “tort reform” law in place. Under the Texas Medical Malpractice and Tort Reform Act, “pain and suffering” damages against all doctors and health care providers are capped at $250,000 (the cap is $500,000 against health care facilities).
Texas law drastically diminishes the financial incentive to file medical malpractice lawsuits in all but the most egregious cases. “Pain and suffering” awards allow injured plaintiffs to compensate their attorneys, who customarily work on contingent fees. Even in cases of clear malpractice, the indigent, the young and the elderly have difficulty obtaining legal counsel because they will not have suffered significant income losses or incurred medical expenses substantial enough to make litigation against the doctors and insurance companies worthwhile.
The result is that many medical malpractice victims in Texas never have their day in court and are never compensated for their losses. Not surprisingly, medical malpractice insurance rates in Texas are among the lowest in the nation. While the number of malpractice complaints filed with the Texas Medical Board are near an all-time high, the number of medical malpractice lawsuits has been falling for years.
Lawyer Marketing’s Narrow Focus on SEO
This morning I looked through a few dozen Texas personal injury law firm blogs to see if any had picked up on the maternal death rate report. None had. (I’m not saying here that there is a connection between the maternal mortality rate and Texas laws hostile to medical malpractice litigation. My point is that, if I were vigorously engaged in a policy debate over the consequences of tort reform, I would attempt to develop a plausible argument that lowering financial disincentives for malpractice might increase risks of harm to patients. Another data point: California, reputedly a “judicial hellhole,” succeeded in lowering its maternal mortality numbers.)
Content-wise, plaintiffs-side law firm websites are almost entirely composed of material explaining existing law, promoting the law firm’s expertise, and promising vigorous representation for the client. There is very little information about current policy issues. The ontent is almost entirely driven by search engine optimization concerns: keywords and linking schemes.
Plaintiffs-side law firms have arrived at this state of affairs because they routinely off-load online marketing chores to marketing specialists and policy advocacy to bar groups and professional associations. That is a mistake. Industry-oriented blogs and AmLaw 200 firm blogs do a much better job engaging on policy matters.
By not participating in policy discussions, plaintiffs-side law firms are missing an opportunity to meet head-on challenges to their law practices and to the lives of their clients. Plaintiffs-side law firms should begin conceiving of their websites not merely as marketing vehicles but also as a means to participate in important policy discussions that impact their practices and the legal system in which their clients seek redress.
The marketing/SEO approach to website content is merely competition for a slice of a static or shrinking market for legal services. Blogging on policy matters, on the other hand, inserts the law firms’ voices into a discussion that will shape the future of their practices. To extend my pie metaphor: plaintiffs-side lawyers are missing an opportunity to make the pie larger.
Tort reform, class action reform, workplace and civil rights issues, environmental protection, regulation of Internet technologies, consumer protection and financial regulation reform. A great national debate is raging over these issues as well as numerous smaller ones. Yet, for the most part, plaintiffs-side lawyer websites are silent on these issues.
Professional Associations Are Missing Out Too
Bloggers for consumer rights organizations such as Public Citizen are doing a lot of the heavy lifting today. They could use some help. Not only from law firm websites, but from their professional associations as well.
Websites operated by the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, the American Association for Justice, and the The National Trial Lawyers contain little consumer-facing information. These sites are directed almost entirely to an audience of legal professionals. From what I could tell, trial lawyer association websites focus on:
- selling directory entries;
- selling website badges;
- selling online legal marketing services;
- selling “super lawyer” and similar designations;
- selling conferences and continuing legal education products; and
- publishing news of interest to legal practitioners.
Websites on the other side of the street — the tort reformers — have their eyes fixed on the target: government officials and business executives. Websites operated by well-funded advocacy groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform and the American Tort Reform Association hammer away at the plaintiffs’ bar, casting complex policy debates as unfair battles between millionaire trial lawyers and good old hard-working business owners. There’s very little pushback against this narrative. The “other side of the story” is rarely heard.
Here’s a gem from the American Tort Reform Foundation: Costly New Anti-Arbitration Rule Aimed at Nursing Homes Is Administration’s Latest Gift to Trial Lawyers. Where on the Internet is this rhetoric being challenged?
What Can Lawyer Bloggers Do?
Plaintiffs-side law firms should consider publishing information on policy topics directed at individual citizens — their clients and prospective clients. Firms should do this themselves, on their websites. The old model of attracting attention to an issue by putting out a press release or calling a newspaper reporter is broken.
The website operated by the Consumer Attorneys of California is a good example of engaging the public on consumer-related policy matters. The site contains a mix of professional and consumer-focused content, with the emphasis on consumers who might come to the site seeking information about consumer policy.
Another excellent example is personal injury firm Morgan and Morgan, which has participated in, and blogged about, efforts in Florida to legalize marijuana. See, e.g., this post, Morgan and Morgan Fights for Marijuana Legalization in Florida. While there is no direct path to increased legal business as a result of this advocacy, posts on this topic position the firm as a compassionate advocate for victims of painful, debilitating diseases, some of whom may someday bring legal business to the firm.
Here is a starter list of ways that plaintiffs-side law firms can participate in policy discussions:
- Blog about state and federal legislative actions that impact the civil justice system.
- Blog about state and federal legislative actions that impact the lives of clients (e.g., for bankruptcy firms, it could be anything having to do with credit, saving money, spending money).
- Blog about people in the community that depend on legal protections or government programs.
- Support lobbyists in statehouses and Congress by blogging about issues they are working on.
- Blog in support of law enforcement efforts by state attorneys general or the Federal Trade Commission or the Food and Drug Administration or the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The coming year will supply ample opportunities for plaintiffs-side law firms to blog on policy matters. Certainly the new Trump Administration will stimulate discussions about medical malpractice reform and class action reform. A unified Republican Congress and White House almost certainly attract proposals to make it more difficult to sue for workplace, consumer protection, and environmental wrongs. These issues will all be top-of-mind among prospective clients. In many cases, the “other side of the story” — your side of the story — will not be published anywhere.