Last month, a number of small law firms announced on their social media that they had been awarded a place on a top 10 list. What they didn’t tell their followers, clients, and stakeholders was that they paid to be there. Not only has this left them at risk of reputational damage, but it could also lead to severe disciplinary action.
In September, a fake news site masquerading as a legitimate publication – and designed to resemble internationally renowned magazine The Wall Street Journal – expanded its advertising and media scheme from the finance and business sector and into the legal profession. Although some parts of this can be overlooked, what firms did next may have exposed them to destructive and irreversible consequences.
The news site published a listicle of fifteen firms “to watch”, falsely indicating that the firms in question were being recognised for their work. The “article” – a term used loosely for reasons that will become clear – inferred that the firms had been judged and won out over other firms. In actual fact, they had all paid to be included. It was also alleged that some of these firms paid more to be ranked higher.
Media Stable managing director Nic Hayes said that what this fake news site does is a con: “What is going on here is that firms are being approached by certain individuals to let them know that they like what they do and ask if they would like to appear in an article that has them featured as a firm or business to watch.
“In reality, it’s just a bot if anything, just collecting news stories to make it look and appear like a real site. The reality here is that no one consumes it, no one looks at it, and it doesn’t have the presence [like major and mainstream media]. It’s just a website that has been designed to look and appear like a real news site.”
The paid promotion isn’t the issue here. What is concerning is that these firms then used mock-ups produced by the fake news site to publish across their various social media platforms, claiming that it was an “honour” to be included and, in some cases, that they “can’t believe” they were ever featured at all. None of the posts seen by Lawyers Weekly made it clear that their place on the list was not a genuine win.
DARE Group personal branding and LinkedIn specialist Sue Parker – who, along with Mr Hayes, was one of the first to become aware of this issue – told Lawyers Weekly that she had been approached by the same site asking for promotion in exchange for a “small registration fee”, estimated to climb to at least $500. Given that she was already across what the site had been scamming from businesses, Ms Parker pressed for more information, but the individual never responded.
“These lists are compiled purely by emails being sent out to ask if they would like to be included as a way to bump up their reputation and be included in a list of lawyers to watch, but there is a fee to do so. It is not judged. It is not awarded by merit. It is purely a commercial ploy and first-in-best-dressed,” Ms Parker explained.
“Everyone is sucked into the deceit. Lawyers have taken the bait, and many have published mock magazine covers to give the illusion that they are on the front cover of an esteemed publication, which continues the cycle of deceit. For a lawyer, their obligations of due diligence cannot be understated, more than any other sector.”
If – but ideally, when – clients and stakeholders become aware of this disingenuous promotion, the reputation of these firms will be tested. More than that, however, is the risk of investigations by a legal professional body and potential disciplinary action. To confirm the legal ramifications, Lawyers Weekly spoke to Xuveo Legal’s director and IP and commercial lawyer Ben Thorn to discuss what may happen next.
“From a legal practitioner perspective, we’re of course bound by the Australian Solicitors Conduct Rules, which applies in most jurisdictions in Australia. They inherently include the duty to be honest and candid, so deliberately engaging in misleading and deceptive conduct can reflect negatively on the profession. Worst case scenario, you could see someone facing professional discipline,” he said.
In this exclusive investigation, Lawyers Weekly worked with Ms Parker, Mr Hayes, and Mr Thorn to examine whether this is about firms falling prey or praying on clients, what this will mean for the trust that is expected from law firms and lawyers, and the legal ramifications that they should expect if this dishonesty continues.
As a note, given the disciplinary action these firms and individuals may have opened themselves up to – and in the interest of protecting their reputation from further harm – Lawyers Weekly has opted to not name the firms involved in this particular list or the site it is published on. However, we are aware that these sites and lists exist everywhere and have provided a way to identify the firms caught up in them.
What firms are buying into and selling on to clients
In the email shared with Lawyers Weekly, the director of an agency purporting to provide strategic revenue growth for brands contacted Ms Parker with the offer of including her in a “top 20 personal branding experts to watch” list. The director promised to highlight Ms Parker and her company by giving her a title that she can “leverage in your marketing materials”. The registration investment, he offered, started at $350 GST, but there is reason to believe this climbed much higher.
With a “fully written” company bio, the director would send back a “custom social media share image”, which appears to feature the individual on the magazine cover. The poorly-made covers – not to mention the complete inconsistency across each of the firms’ social media pages – are one of the many red flags of the deal. The other red flags, identified below, should help clients and competitors recognise the deceit.
To appear legitimate, the fake news site aggregates real articles from across the world and publishes them under fake names. However, upon closer inspection, every other article is made up of the fake listicles. These firms have been brought into the list while failing (or ignoring) to recognise that the publication reeks of dishonesty.
“They may as well have been contacted by the local kindergarten or by the local neighbourhood watch magazines because it is of no value whatsoever or credibility. Worse, when credible media and journalists research articles for the legal profession, they will start to question the firms’ credibility as well,” Ms Parker said.
Ms Parker added that lawyers are already facing distrust, as indicated in the Roy Morgan Image of Professions Survey 2021, “so engaging in fake influence doesn’t help the legal sector broadly, nor the individual firm or practitioner”. This survey found that just 26 per cent of Australians would say lawyers are ethical. Given this incredibly low ranking, firms should steer clear of doing any damage – like the lists.
As already mentioned, paid promotion is not the issue. It, in fact, remains an important tool for firms and for many other businesses to use to promote themselves, according to both Ms Parker and Mr Hayes. The offence here – and where “firms can find themselves in deep hot water” – is when they claim the articles were earned. They could get away with this because the article was never marked as “sponsored”.
“What they’re really telling their audience is that ‘I don’t think much of you, I’m going to tell you an absolute porky pie, and I’m telling you a lie that I was being featured here, but I haven’t been because I paid to be’. It’s a fairly ill-put together article that makes and looks to be as real as possible but completely and utterly fails.
“What they’re actually doing is cutting their own throat in front of the whole audience – the very audience that they’re trying to influence and build credibility, trust and authority with. What they’re doing is just throwing everything out [like their reputation] for a cheap article and a ‘look at me’ moment,” Mr Hayes said.
Mr Hayes added that paying for these articles almost equates to buying followers on social media. This “very small dopamine hit” will have an enormous impact on the reputation and authority of law firms and lawyers while walking the line of being worthy of an investigation by a disciplinary body. Mr Thorn, who later explains what it takes for firms to cross this line, shared where they have first gone wrong.
“The issue here is not so much that it’s paid promotion because that’s fair enough and businesses advertise all the time. In this context, it’s more about whether that’s disclosed to the audience. If the business is effectively purchasing an award, there are two issues. One is that they are essentially paying for that promotion and then not disclosing that to the audience,” Mr Thorn explained.
“The second is whether the award is a result of a genuine competition and whether there is the right of opportunity for other businesses to enter the same competition while having the same chance of winning based only on merits.”
Once is reputational damage, any more spells doom for practising certificates
As mentioned earlier, these fake news sites are targeting businesses of all kinds. The difference here is that law firms and lawyers are expected to run due diligence in all things they do. Other than the soon-to-be-obvious red flags when looking at the home page of these fake news sites, there are a number of other checks that lawyers can run to recognise when an offer like this list should be ignored.
“The sad part is that media is a very complicated beast. They set it up to look legitimate. On the outside, you would think this is a legitimate site, but it isn’t. It’s not a well-known media brand for a start, and no one knows of it,” Ms Parker commented. “Unless you are sure of the credibility of the publication, run for the hills and do your due diligence because it’s not worth faking influence.”
Mr Thorn explained that businesses operating under the Australian Consumer Law cannot engage in conduct that is “misleading or deceptive or is likely to be misleading or deceptive”. What that means, Mr Thorn explained, is that businesses generating false impressions that they have a reputation or approval in the community “can cross the line into this misleading and deceptive conduct” category.
Where the line between a slap on the wrist and removal of a practising certificate lies is in the frequency in which a law firm or lawyer engages in this misconduct and the extent of the dishonesty. Mr Thorn explained that this standard varies between each jurisdiction, but essentially, as the more repetitive the conduct becomes, the more interested legal professional bodies will be in examining the nature of the deceit.
“From a lawyers perspective, I think there’s always this tension for promotion,” Mr Thorn said, adding that the “central consideration for a lawyer is, will this promotion I’m engaging in be a true reflection of my actual character and reputation?”
Ms Parker said every law firm should put in place a plan for marketing and promotion to avoid these issues. Lawyers, particularly because of the work that they do, “certainly need to get a second check of business legitimacy”. Of course, there are external companies that provide this service for small law firms without the revenue to afford in-house help, and usually, this comes at a reasonable cost.
For those who have already jumped the gun and bought into the scam, Ms Parker recommended: “Remove every footprint and touchpoint. As a lawyer, you know full well what you have got to do. Get your name removed and certainly get it removed from your socials. You don’t want to be associated with something that’s not earned.”
Mr Thorn explained that if a business is caught out in an investigation into these fake practices, there could be plenty of consequences in store. Sometimes it could be as damaging to their reputation as taking out a newspaper advertisement in a similar news channel to explain the orders made against them and why.
“Removing impugned material can be the first step towards rectifying the situation. Beyond that, if it got to an ACCC investigation or a consumer civil dispute, then it gets a bit more serious for the person involved in that they may find themselves having to front a court and explain the conduct,” Mr Thorn said.
“The implications at that stage could be civil penalties and potentially court orders that can be made against the business, as well as the negative publicity that goes with that. The ACCC also has powers to get orders for corrective advertisements and corrective statements, which they do enforce from time to time as well when these businesses have engaged in that misleading and deceptive conduct.”
How to identify false accolades (and how to avoid them)
There are three main red flags to look for to identify when a firm has paid for and then falsely advertised a “top 10” position or similar. They are, according to Ms Parker, whether the site the article is published on has named any editors, has an editorial policy available, and clearly states or offers its advertising guidelines. Using Lawyers Weekly as an example, all three are easily found across the website.
Then there is how the site makes money from advertising in connection with the above. The first is with paid advertising directly – that is, real companies reaching out and promoting material that is relevant to the sites’ audience – and ad tech programmatic advertising that runs off search engines like Google. The first group tends to avoid fake news sites due to their illegitimacy. Importantly, sites that use the latter are only illegitimate if they also use those first three red flags.
Sites that publish legitimate lists or similar also tend to include the methodology used or make it clear that they are chosen and judged by independent parties. Neither of these clarifications is made on the fake news sites’ “top 10” article.
Mr Hayes also made a great point about recognising when a firm has paid their way onto a list: “Be aware that when they’re being asked to put up money to be presented who the circle of people they might be printed with. They aren’t of the credibility of where the firm wants to be. It’s almost embarrassing that they’ve been featured in an article that might be rungs ahead as a business and a law firm.”
Moving forward, law firms should avoid similar traps by looking for these red flags. If they are being contacted by an individual promoting a paid-for-spot on a similar list, complete due diligence to identify whether the site is legitimate. Another red flag would be receiving the offer via email with no way to call the sender. There is also the option to contact external agencies to identify the best marketing practices.
“It doesn’t cost a great deal, and it’s the best investment you will make. We spend years building our reputation and our authority in a space, but in minutes that can be completely destroyed. It’s a very, very much worthwhile investment [to invest]. Any good PR adviser will suggest the pros and cons of doing things,” Mr Hayes said, adding that there are only cons to these lists for law firms and businesses.