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'Neutral' Sites as Fronts for Firms

At the Fortune blog Legal Pad, Roger Parloff points to perhaps the most recent example of what strikes me as an increasingly common and problematic trend -- PI firms setting up seemingly neutral front sites devoted to health, pharmaceutical or other issues they handle. Parloff's example is myMeso, a site about mesothelioma that, he writes, "looks like it's probably run by a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) group devoted to providing dispassionate information about the dreaded, fatal, asbestos-linked cancer." In fact, the site is operated by Alabama plaintiffs' firm Beasley Allen Crow Methvin Portis & Miles and written by employees of the firm. Parloff had to "scroll down a ways" before he found a faint, watermark-like box indicating the site was a "public awareness web site sponsored by Beasley Allen."

Since Parloff's post, the firm has modified the page so that its sponsorship is prominently identified. But this is only one example of many. Pick a disease, add dot-com, and you're likely to find yourself at a site portrayed as a victims' or consumers' resource but run by a law firm. Some are transparent, some are not. There is Mesothelioma.com, Asbestos.com and plenty of others. A variation on this theme are lawyer referral sites such as the Top Lawyers sites I wrote about here in October ('TopLawyers' Floods YouTube, Web).

A Beasley Allen partner tells Parloff he does not consider the site confusing to consumers. Ethics specialists say the site may be OK under ethics rules because it does not directly solicit clients -- and may even be protected by the First Amendment. Notably, Parloff writes, several legal-ethics experts initially saw no problem with the site, "since none realized that the site was run by a law firm until I told them."

I am all for law firms disseminating useful information to consumers. But they should be up-front about it. If a firm sets up a set to provide information, it should lay claim to it, not lay silent behind a hidden wall.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on March 28, 2008 at 12:12 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

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