Client Dilemma When Facing Vanity Awards
You’re considering between two lawyers – one was honored by the American Institute of Family Law Distinction, the other was named a State Top 50 by the Academy of Domestic Relations Excellence. Tough choice? Not at all – I just made up both names, but they are typical of lawyer vanity award scams. These “ego awards” are no more an indication of a lawyer’s excellence than someone putting a Yellow Pages logo on their website.
Last year, as I was writing my blog post on the trials and triumphs of applying to become an AAML fellow, I started pondering the “why”. After all, most members of the public will never know the difference between the nation’s most prestigious family law organization, and a pay to play website which charges lawyers $500 for a logo proclaiming them to be in the Top 10% of something.
Some legal commentators have even suggested that using vanity logos is deceptive, thereby raising ethical concerns:
Buying fake awards and plastering them on your site to get more clients is deceiving consumers. It is false advertising. It is unethical, especially if you know it is a scam, or if you have a nagging suspicion.William Peacock. Lawyers of Distinction is a Distinct Scam, ABA Plays Along
Even the federal government has gotten involved, warning consumers not to fall for bogus awards!
At Graham.Law, we receive more solicitations from these phony awards than we can count, trying to lure us into paying hundreds of dollars for an overpriced plaque & logo which we, and the website seeking our money, both know means nothing. The only people fooled are the public.
We ignore these phony award solicitations, and so should you. My skepticism runs so deep that when I first learned of our U.S. News & World Report Best Lawyers award a few years back, I ignored it, assuming it was a scam. It was only after I did some digging that I realized it was legit – and actually kind of cool!
A phony “award” you have to pay for which comes in the form of a generic graphic, a meaningless plaque, and a misleading unverifiable claim that you are better than other lawyers.Jason Miller, Internet Lava.
Real Awards Don’t Cost Money!
The first clue an award may be dubious is that they charge the lawyer. A pay-to-play award is one where the defining characteristic of who gets “honored” is paying to be listed, not actual skills or expertise. Real awards honor exceptional lawyers without regard for whether they pay or not – Super Lawyers, U.S. News & World Report’s Best Lawyers in America, etc. (Note – Graham.Law has won several of these honors, and we have never yet paid for any award, though we do belong to bona fide legal organizations, such as AAML, which have annual dues).
The authentic awards are not pay to play, but bestow recognition based solely upon merit. Such honors are credible because the selection process does not involve money. A real award means:
- A lawyer cannot buy inclusion, and
- Everyone honored is listed without charge.
Lawyer Vanity Awards Interchangeable Names
While I happened to make up both names in the phony award example at the beginning of this post, unfortunately there are a plethora of notorious vanity award companies who create “ego awards” – prestigious-sounding names for their pay to play directories, duping the public, and perhaps even unsuspecting lawyers who pay for the honor.
This problem is not unique to the legal profession. The American Academy of Pediatrics is a well-respected organization comprised of 67,000 physicians, founded in 1930. When they speak on child health, America listens.
But they are not to be confused with the American College of Pediatricians, a socially conservative advocacy group which claims membership in the hundreds (not all of them doctors), and advocates against LGBT adoptions and in favor of “conversion therapy” to “cure” homosexuals. No doubt a mere coincidence their names are so similar?
The average person hearing the names may not realize the distinction between them. And that’s the point of these sites. Consider two examples in the legal world:
- The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers is the nation’s leading family law organization, comprised of top lawyers and judges, demonstrated leaders in their field who went through an exhaustive application process, capped by an exam, to become fellows. AAML conducts CLEs, publishes a widely-cited legal journal, has monthly and annual conferences, writes amicus briefs for appeals, etc.
- The National Academy of Family Law Attorneys is, well, nothing like the AAML.
Variation of the Who’s Who Award Scam
The original Who’s Who was a sincere attempt to inform the rest of the world about prominent people way back in the Victorian era, but over the years its knock-offs have been notorious pay-to-play scams. As Wikipedia notes:
“A Who’s Who scam is a fraudulent Who’s Who-like biographical directory. Who’s Who scams involve the selling of “memberships” in fraudulent directories that are created online or through instant publishing services. These fraudulent directories represent thinly veiled moneymaking scams.”
“My Dog is Better Than Your Lawyer”
Perhaps the best indication that these honors are dubious at best is that not only do they not verify its members are top-notch attorneys, they don’t even verify they are human!
Attorney Steve Fisher, who wrote a blog with the title “My Dog is Better than Your Lawyer”, nominated his dog, S. Roosticus Fischer, for Lawyers of Distinction. And the apparently brilliant canine was accepted – upon payment of $475, this vanity award site would issue a plaque declaring that a dog was in the top 10% of lawyers.
Roosticus was no one-time lapse – the Davis Law Firm in Seattle reports they actually did pay Lawyers of Distinction the $475, and in return that site recognized their pet dog Lucy as one of the top 10% of lawyers in the U.S. If this isn’t pay to play, nothing is.
Before you cut them slack because they may just be dog lovers, their apparently non-existent vetting process was on display again when they named a pet rooster, Zippy as one of the top 10% of lawyers in the U.S.
The next time you see a distinguished-looking logo on a lawyer’s wall or website, check into whether it is legitimate, or a vanity award which has also honored dogs, a rooster, or anyone else, human or animal, willing to pay $475. If a dog who never took the bar exam qualifies for membership, how prestigious is the “award”?
How Recognize a Pay to Play Lawyer Vanity Award Scam
Vanity award websites prey upon the public’s ignorance, and confuse them with similar-sounding genuine awards. And then they find lawyers willing to play along.
List of Legal Pay to Play Ego Awards
There are so many of these vanity awards that trying to have a current list may be a fool’s errand. However, Jason E. Miller of Internet Lava has created a running list of known lawyer ego scams. It’s a dizzying list, filled with similarly-named websites that he deems as lawyer vanity award scams. The names on his list include a few you may see on family law attorney websites:
- American Institute of Family Law Attorneys (this site is mentioned in several articles referenced below, including revealing their “office” is a UPS store!)
- Lawyers of Distinction (which has bestowed the “Top 10%” award on dogs and a pet chicken)
- National Academy of Family Law Attorneys (Not really trying to confuse people with the legitimately prestigious AAML).
I enthusiastically recommend reading his article – not just for his list of scam vanity award companies, but also for his analysis of the problem.
Characteristics of a Vanity Award
No doubt trying to keep up a list of phony ego award companies is like playing “Whack-a-Mole” – as long as there’s money to be made, new pay to play “awards” will pop up. Sometimes it helps to know what to look for, so here are the characteristics of many award scams I’ve noticed:
- Non-Existent Nomination Process. Nominate yourself. Or pretend to be someone else to nominate yourself – they don’t check. Or their “selection committee” will nominate you – which is shorthand for they will spam you with pay to play award offers.
- Show Me the Money! After so-called “nomination”, the very next step is breaking out your wallet. Once you part with $500, the guy running the pay to play scam will then “carefully consider” whether you meet his “rigorous standards.” That’s shorthand for making sure the check clears.
- Vague or Minimal Eligibility Standards. They bandy around terms like “excellence”, but in reality the criteria consist of practicing law without losing your law license. And they don’t even bother to verify this already low threshold – as discussed above, they’re fine honoring domestic animals, as long as you pay them.
- Nothing But a Website. Many notorious vanity award sites don’t even pretend to have an address or phone number – they exist only as a website, and therefore the only way to reach them is through the web. If they do provide an address, look it up on Google Maps. They will falsely imply that Box 145 at the local strip mall UPS Store is “Suite 145”. Or their address is nothing more than a “virtual office”. The more sophisticated phony award sites might actually have a real address and telephone number – not unique to them, because the same person sitting at the same desk happens to run a host of other similar ego award websites masquerading as different companies.
- Disclaimers Disavowing Actual Excellence. These guys want to make money from attorneys willing to pay for a plaque, but don’t want to risk being sued themselves. So while they pretend to be elite, sometimes they’re actually honest in their small print, where they admit that their award is not an indication of quality: “Any references to ‘excellent,’ ‘excellence,’ or ‘distinguished’ are meant to refer to [name of organization] and not to any named member individually.” Another ego award admits that it is merely a “list of professionals”, and “no recommendations or guarantees are made as to the quality of service you might expect.” Isn’t this what we call the Yellow Pages?
- Minimal Legal Accomplishments. The attorney bio is advertising fluff, without the specifics of the accomplishments which led to the “honor.” And it’s not surprising that there may not be many accomplishments to list when a pay to play site recognizes cold hard cash over publishing articles, presenting at CLEs, holding leadership positions in the bar, etc.
- Show Me the Money! Again! No matter how great the lawyer, if she doesn’t pay hundreds of dollars, these bogus lawyer vanity awards sites won’t list her. And it’s also the other way around – I’d be shocked if they turned away any lawyer, or animal, who paid them money, no matter how thin their resume.
Note – my use of terms such as “vanity award scam” mirrors that of other commentators – it reflects my opinion about a pay to play advertisement pretending to be an actual legal honor. I’m not implying that the vanity award companies are doing anything illegal. They are marketers out to make a buck through a means which many of us consider to be misleading and immoral. But as far as I know, preying upon unsuspecting professionals, or the public, is not actually illegal. Even if it should be.
Create Your Own Pay to Play Vanity Award Scam
Want to get in on the action and set up your own ego award company? Fool the public by creating your own vanity award in 5 easy steps.
Select a Geographic Term
You could be statewide (e.g. Colorado), regional (Western), or go for the gusto and pretend that your little website is truly nationwide with National or American.
Pretend to be an Organization
No one will respect a legal honor from the one-person site you really are. So pretend it’s more than just you by using a word like Organization, or better yet, one which implies a stuffy lineage, such as Academy, College or Institute.
Include a Legal Term
You want lawyers to pay to play, the logo needs to mention the law: Legal, Lawyers, Attorneys, or even a specific subject, like Family Law.
Add a Superlative
The last step in choosing the name is adding a positive adjective that implies being in your directory means the lawyers are great: Excellence, Best, Top, Distinction, etc.
Create Website & Logo
Nothing fancy – a cookie-cutter logo like the one at the top of this list will do. The domain should be a .org, trying again to suggest you’re a non-profit when in reality you are anything but.
That’s it. You’ve created the National Institute of Top Family Law Litigators, or the American College of Legal Excellence. All you need to do now is find lawyers willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a plaque and inclusion in what is really just a commercial web site directory with a Google page rank of zero.
More Information About Lawyer Vanity Awards Scams
Because so many people who scorn these phony ego scams are themselves fellow attorneys or reputable marketers who are not scammers, it’s hardly a surprise there has been much written about them. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Lawyer Ego Scams: What You Need to Know. Jason Miller’s article is the most comprehensive I’ve seen about lawyer vanity award scams, and includes a lengthy list of notorious vanity award companies.
- Lawyer Awards Are (Mostly) Bullshit, Unless They’re Given to Me – American Institute Scam. William Peacock names names of both the lawyers involved, and the companies.
- How to Buy A Top 10 Attorney Award (and Link). Though the focus is on personal injury, Mockingbird owner Conrad Saam’s article is about the “American Institute“, which also includes a family law ego vanity award.
- Lawyers of Distinction is a Distinct Scam, ABA Plays Along. William Peacock discusses how phony lawyer vanity awards are unethical, even a completely made-up person passed muster at this group.
- When the Top 10% Means Nothing. Lawyers of Distinction was so upset by Mockingbird’s expose that they absurdly tried to stomp on it with an Cease & Desist letter.
- Lawyers of Distinction Scam: Cease & Desist Threat. Another Mockingbird article about Lawyers of Distinction from Conrad Saam. (Note – legitimate marketers really do get upset at unscrupulous marketers peddling bogus, pay to play lawyer vanity awards as real.
- Awards are great marketing tools, but they’re not all created equal. Even the American Bar Association is paying attention to this issue, with this article from Lyle Moran in the ABA Journal.
(Legitimate) Award-Winning Family Law Firm in Colorado Springs
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