Updated on: 9/23/2019
by Mischelle Davis, Originally Posted 07/15/19
Out-of-State-Based Lawyers Hanging A Shingle & Advertising For Personal Injury & Car Accident Cases In Washington State
One week ago today I was contacted by a reporter from Law.com who wanted to ask questions about an alarming trend in the personal injury law industry that can have a severely negative impact on the outcome of injury claims, lawsuits and settlements. He wanted to talk about out-of-state law firms setting up ‘satellite offices’ in different jurisdictions and calling themselves ‘local’ attorneys.
You can read Will All the Real Lawyers Online Please Stand Up?. But a friend suggested that I write a very detailed blog post about why lawyers setup fictitious or satellite offices in other states and how the practice is potentially damaging to unsuspecting injury victims in search of an attorney.
Over the past 5 years or so I’ve noticed more and more out-of-state-based law firm listings in Google search results and GoogleMaps.
Sometimes the Google map listing is regional. Example: Issaquah attorney sets up a fake Google map listing for Seattle. But sometimes it is out-of-state firms trying to look like they have a local presence.
These are out-of-state-based firms that want to look like they have long established offices in the greater Seattle area but don’t. Many of these out-of-state-based firms do not have any attorneys, partners, or associates that are admitted to practice law in Washington State. Often, they don’t have any paralegals, legal assistants, or case managers in Washington either.
According to Google's guidelines business must "use a precise, accurate address to describe your business location. PO Boxes or mailboxes located at remote locates are not acceptable." Google goes on to say, "if your business rents a temporary, 'virtual' office at a different address from your primary business, do not create a page for that location unless it is staffed (by your employees) during your normal business hours."
I first became aware of the problem in 2015 when a law firm that is based in Ohio began advertising for Washington State cases on Google. They had hired one, young attorney in Seattle and placed him in a sublet office within another law firm's suite. But if you were looking at their website you'd think that they have a huge office in downtown Seattle.
Just a week ago I was at a law firm management conference where a Seattle-based attorney was a featured speaker. He told me that at the conference he had been approached by a Florida-based attorney who had just opened an office in Seattle. He told me about a Google review that he had seen that was written by a Seattle-area injury victim who had researched out to the Florida firm thinking they were local. After doing some research the injured person found that they didn't have any attorneys that were licensed in Washington State she felt lied to and victimized.
Also within the last 2 weeks I interviewed a local attorney for an open position in our firm. For the last two years he had been working for a California firm that opened a satellite office in Washington. He felt that the California firm was not managing the local office well and had staffed it with too many young, inexperienced, and cheap lawyers and paralegals. He said they are planning on closing the Washington office because of numerous issues, inability to properly supervise, and a lack of financial success.
And just this week I saw Google ad for a law firm that I had never seen before. After doing a little bit of research I found that they are based in Arizona and just began doing business in Washington in January. All of their "offices" in Washington state are virtual---no instate employees. It appears that their calls are being forwarded to Arizona and any Washington cases are being handled by Arizona staff.
What Are Examples of a Firms Masquerading As Locally-Based?
You may see some out-of-state-based firms on the local map when you conduct a Google search. There are several ways they can create the local illusion of being a locally-based firm. Below are just a few examples of how can create the illusion of being a locally-based law firm.
Satellite Office - Large out-of-state law firm opens up a very small office in Washington in order to establish a presence. This is not a fake office. However, looking at the firm's website one might think that they have a large Seattle office when, in fact, the majority of their attorneys and staff are located at their out-of-state headquarters.
Virtual Office/Business Center/Shared Work Space – They may use a shared office business like Regus, Thinkspace, WeWork, Worklifts, or others. They simply pay a fee and can say that their offices are in that space even though there are no law firm employees on site. Mail sent to the virtual office will either be forwarded elsewhere or scanned and emailed to the firm's headquarters. 1
Post Office Box - Sometimes they use a post office box in a downtown neighborhood.
Commercial Mail Receiving Agent - There are virtual mailbox services, known as 'commercial mail receiving agent', that will provide you with a physical street address to receive postal mail which is scanned and sent to the recipient via email.
Working From Home? - Occasionally anyone who is curious enough to do some digging might find that the firm’s local address is actually an apartment or condo address of a friend or acquaintance who forwards mail for them.
Empty Space - And I’ve even seen firms use the address of a defunct business or an empty lot and setup mail forwarding with the US Post Office so they can receive mail sent to the address.
Using Another Firm's Address - One attorney will get another attorney to accept the postcard from Google My Business so they can get an “address” in that town. This is against Google's guidelines and when caught Google will remove them.
Office Sublet (kinda sorta local) - Some actually sub-let one room in a local law firm that practices in a different area of the law or ask a friend with a firm if they can use their address and conference room. A large out-of-state firm may hire just one or two local employees that work in sublet space within another law firm.
Mini Office (kinda sorta local) - Some are very, very small offices with just a lobby, receptionist, and conference room to give the appearance of a presence. Or a large out-of-state firm may hire just one or two local employees. Example: Renting the smallest space in a building so they look legitimate.
Fake Photos - Some attorneys will submit Photoshoped photos to Google to fake looking like they have an office at a specific address. Yes, they will Photoshop a law firm sign on an office photo. Or if they don't have the technical skills some will tape up a sign, take a photo, then pull it down.
TOTALLY Fake - There are businesses that will put up totally fake listings; gather case leads; and then sell them to attorneys. Let me be very clear--a company that is not a law firm creates a fake Google business listing that looks like a law firm; takes the phone calls; then sells the information to a lawyer. What sort of lawyer would have to buy leads? Ones that are unsuccessful and desperate for business.
How can you spot the faux addresses? It can be very, very difficult. But an address listed on their website that has the words ‘By appointment only’ next to it is a good tip-off that something fishy is going on. Beware if they insist on coming to you or meeting in a coffee shop somewhere---they may not want you to see their office.
If you read on I've outlined a few ways to unmask an out-of-state-based law firm.
Fake Google Listings?
According to a Wall Street Journal investigation, there are roughly 11 million falsely listed businesses on Google at any given time. And hundreds of thousands more fake listings appearing every month. Google does attempt to verify all of its business listings with a snail-mail postcard, a phone call, or via email but the system can be quite easy to fool. In 2017, Search Engine Land looked at the top 20 Google search listings that ranked for personal injury lawyers in a major city and found that eight (40%) were fake.
In a March 2019 article entitled, The majority of listings for car accident attorneys on Google are fake, SearchEngineLand.com shared that in one market they analyzed 18 out of the top 20 'attorneys' in a search result were not real businesses.
..."it is no secret that some attorneys like setting up “fake” satellite offices and physical locations just for the purpose of getting a Google My Business page. Of course, having such a page gives them the chance to appear in the Local Pack and can result in inbound phone calls and new clients, " said Len Raleigh in a May 2019 Telapost article entitled Google My Business Aggressively Suspending Personal Injury Lawyer Pages in 2019.
How Do Out-of-State-Based Lawyers Get A Local Phone Number?
Services such as GoogleVoice, Grasshopper, eVoice and many others make it very easy for a person or business to get a local number and then forward all calls elsewhere. Virtual phone numbers are also known as Direct Inward Dialing numbers (DID number), which use a n internet cloud-based phone system instead of the traditional, hard-wired PBX system.
When masquerading as local lawyers an out-of-state firm obtains a local telephone number to give an impression that they are locally-based. But they may have few, if any, local employees and the calls are typically directed to an out-of-state call center.
What Are Some Examples Out-of-State-Based Attorney Advertising?
Out-of-state-based law firms are placing digital ads (search engine ads), television ads, bus/transit ads and other forms of advertising to attract local potential clients in need of legal services.
Below is a recent example from Seattle (identifying information has been removed). The firm’s ad says, “Seattle’s Top Injury Attorney” despite the fact that the firm is based in Florida and did not have a presence in Washington State before 04/19/2019 (when they applied for a WA state business license). They first posted an ad on Indeed.com to find a receptionist on May 11, 2019 and their digital video ads on YouTube have very small, faint text that reads, “Attorney depicted in this commercial is associating with other attorneys licensed to practice law in the State of Washington while she is awaiting being admitted to the Washington Bar.”
Here is another example. The ad below says 'Top WA Car Accident Attorney' but the firm is based in Arizona; only became a registered Washington business on 1/17/2019, and appears to have only virtual offices in Washington State. One of the attorneys listed on their website was admitted to the Washington bar in January 2019 but lives with his wife and children in Arizona.
What Are National Law Firms?
There are many national law firms---particularly those focused on corporate (mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures) business. But many out-of-state-based injury lawyers that call themselves 'national' firms are more of a "brand" and law firm franchise than practicing attorneys or courtroom litigators. Many haven't actually tried a case in court in some time and simply hire young, inexpensive attorneys to settle cases. Although there are some people who are attracted to a law firm by big-name attorney partners, in general what people want/need in a lawyer is skill and experience specific to their particular concerns.
Is It Ethical Of Out-Of-State Firms To Advertise In Washington?
No, it is not ethical for an attorney to advertise their services or open an office before they are licensed to practice law in Washington State. According to the Washington State Court’s Rules Of Professional Conduct (RPC) For Attorneys:
RPC 5.5 UNAUTHORIZED PRACTICE OF LAW; MULTIJURISDICTIONAL PRACTICE OF LAW – “…A lawyer who is not admitted to practice in this jurisdiction shall not: (1) … establish an office or other systematic and continuous presence in this jurisdiction for the practice of law; or (2) hold out to the public or otherwise represent that the lawyer is admitted to practice law in this jurisdiction……. a lawyer must not hold out to the public or otherwise represent that the lawyer is admitted to practice law in this jurisdiction.”
RPC 7.1 COMMUNICATIONS CONCERNING A LAWYER'S SERVICES – “…A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer's services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.”
Why Shouldn't I Hire An Out-Of-State Attorney?
There are a number of reasons why a person may wish to hire a local attorney rather than an out-of-state lawyer. Here are just a few things to consider.
Local Accident Scene - Unless they have lived in Washington State for a significant period of time they are not familiar with the general geography, counties, cities, neighborhoods, roadways, traffic patterns, etc. In other words, they cannot possibly understand the area and general environment where the accident happened.
Different State, Different Laws - Tort laws (injury law) can vary greatly from state-to-state. Each state is allowed to create, implement and enforce its own laws in additional to federal laws. Other than how tort law is applied to federal government entities and employees; tort law is state law. Although tort law may be similar across the country, some torts, tort doctrines, and tort defenses are not recognized in every state and/or may be different in different states.
Local Laws, Local Rules - Even within Washington State local court rules vary from county-to-county. Unless an attorney has filed numerous lawsuits and tried multiple cases within the local jurisdiction they cannot possibly be familiar with how state laws and local rules may impact the outcome of your case.
Working With Local Judges - Local court culture, common practices and judges have a huge impact on claims. An out-of-state attorney may have never met the judge who is handling the case. The non-local attorneys may not know they judge’s style, their likes/dislikes or how the judge runs the courtroom. A local attorney may have have previous experience with local courts which will give them an understanding the rules of the local court better than an out-of-state attorney.
Connecting With A Local Jury - Jurors pay attention to the attorneys and watch their verbal and non-verbal behavior. Insight into the local culture of jurors can help trial attorneys in their attempts to connect with jurors. Jurors also expect attorneys to be organized, understand the local laws and court rules, present relevant evidence and keep up with the pace of the trial. Jurors do not like having their time wasted, so local attorneys with in-state trial experience have an advantage with the jury.
Know Thy Local Enemy – Local attorneys know other local attorneys. Specifically they are more likely to have past experience going up against the opposing lawyer in a case.
Local Rapport – A lawyer values having a good reputation in the community in which they live and work. Local attorneys want to maintain good reputation in their local court. An out-of-town lawyer has little incentive to worry about the long-term impact their choices have on reputation. They will also have relationships contacts with local police, prosecutors, and expert witnesses, which can help your case.
No Travel Expense - Once you hire an attorney, the costs associated with that attorney’s travel to depositions, mediations, arbitrations or trial are billed to the client. Local lawyers don’t need plane tickets or hotel rooms.
Bait And Switch? - Many out-of-state attorneys will often use contract ‘local counsel’ lawyers or setup ‘of counsel’ relationships with someone who is local. But ‘of counsel’ means that the attorney is a contractor rather than an employee or partner (owner) of the firm. Or they may ‘associate’ or 'partner' with a local firm which means that they are passing the case on to another firm or lawyer but sharing in the fee. Many times out-of-state firms work with less experienced and/or less successful local attorneys who desperately need the income that contract work provides.
Buy Local - Locally owned and operated businesses care about and are invested in the well-being of the community and its future. Local businesses are more accountable to their local communities and filter more money into the local economy.
When Can A Lawyer Ethically Practice In Washington State Without A License?
There is a way for an out-of-state -based attorney to practice in Washington state while being supervised by a local attorney. Lawyers are allowed to represent clients in other states through pro hac vice admission. Pro hac vice means “for this turn” or “for this occasion.” This allows the attorney, on a case by case basis, to represent a client in another state for a specific purpose and for a specific case if they can complete all of the requirements for limited admission and secures the services of a local attorney to supervise them.
How Hard Is It To Get Licensed In Washington State?
According to the Washington State Bar Association’s (WSBA) website, “Lawyers admitted to the practice of law in other states or territories of the United States or the District of Columbia are not required to sit for the lawyer bar examination if they present satisfactory proof of admission and current good standing in that jurisdiction, together with proof of active legal experience for at least three of the past five years immediately preceding the filing of the application.”
In addition to filing an application with the WSBA, must produce a number of documents from the jurisdiction in which they have been admitted to practice and there are numerous additional requirements that must be met prior to recommending to the Washington Supreme Court that it issue an order allowing an attorney to practice in Washington. An attorney is are not licensed or permitted to practice law in Washington State until all the required steps are complete, AND the Washington Supreme Court has entered an order admitting the lawyer to the practice of law.
How Do I Know If A Law Firm Is Really Local?
There are a few places where you can quickly find out if an attorney or law firm is REALLY local. But be careful. There are ways that businesses can manipulate some of these resources so it is best to check several sites.
Look up the attorney's Avvo profile. But ignore the office location information. Go to the resume section and look a license information. Avvo will show you all the states in which the attorney is licensed to practice law.
Secretary of State
Search the Washington Secretary of State’s website for business registration information. Out of state law firms that have opened offices in Washington State may have their principal, or ‘real’ location address listed and may have “FOREIGN PROFESSIONAL SERVICE CORPORATION” as business type.
Note: Local law firms and attorneys will probably have “WA LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY”; “WA PROFESSIONAL LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY “; “WA PROFIT CORPORATION” or “WA PROFESSIONAL SERVICE CORPORATION” on their listing.
The date the business first began doing business in Washington and/or was established in Washington State will be prominently displayed.
If you really want to dig deep look for the "filing history" and "name history" buttons in the lower right-hand corner of the company's business page. And then "view documents".
NOTE: Sometimes businesses change names. So you might need to search a couple of times using the “registered agent” name.
Washington State Bar Association (WSBA)
Check the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) Check the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) lawyer directory to see if the attorney has been admitted to the Washington State Bar. If they are able to practice law in Washington look for the “WSBA Admit Date” to see how long they have been licensed in Washington. Anyone with less than 5-10 of years of in-state experience may not be qualified to handle your case.
Website: Check here for WSBA Member Directory
King County Bar Association
Contact the King County Bar Association to find out if the attorney is or has ever been a member. Note: An attorney can have a license to practice law in Washington and not choose to be a member of a county bar association.
Washington State Department of Revenue
Check to see if the law firm has a Washington State business license. The easiest way to find out is to search the Washington State Department of Revenue. Again look for when the business license was first issued.
City of Seattle Business License
Law firms should also be licensed in the city where they claim to have an office. For example, you might check the City of Seattle’s website for a firm’s business license.
Washington Association for Justice
Visit the Washington Association for Justice's website and search their member directory. Note: You don't have to be licensed in Washington State to be a member.
Do Seattlites Want Local Lawyers?
The March 2019 Seattle Times article entitled ‘Seattle Freeze’: Forget making friends — half of Washington residents don’t even want to talk to you, shared the results of a survey by Pemco Insurance that gives credence to the "the Seattle Freeze" in which natives have a reputation for not welcoming outsiders.
Seattlites are nostalgic about when their city had a smaller population and wasn't gentrified and mainstreamed to death to appease the newcomers. An influx of Californians moving here en masse in the 90's and tech workers in the decades since has created some serious resentment. The area's rapid growth has led to increased housing costs, higher taxes and more traffic. Seattlites don't like anyone driving a car with an out-of-state license plate.
Washingtonians have combined this bias with their preference for all things 'local'.
The 'buy local' movement is changing the way businesses exist in their communities. Citizens of Washington State are leaders in the 'buy local movement'. They want to know that their food was locally grown. They like to shop for local arts and crafts. They love farmer's markets. According to American Express study, 93 percent of Americans believe it’s important to support the local businesses they value in their community. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Americans consciously shop at locally-owned businesses in their communities because they don’t want them to go away.
Accuracy of Information
While the information in this article is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication, changes after the time of publication may impact on the accuracy of the information. The information may change without notice and Mischelle Davis and/or Davis Law Group, P.S. is not in any way liable for the accuracy of any information printed and stored or in any way interpreted and used by a user. Please contact Mischelle Davis if you wish to update any information contained within this article.