Being on the Cutting Edge
By Mark Del Bianco
I am on the cutting edge, or so my wife tells me. It’s not just that I practice telecommunications and Internet law (whatever those mean), or that I left a big law firm to hang out a shingle. It’s the way I’m trying to build the practice. I’m not in the Yellow Pages, nor do I advertise in newspapers or television. Sure, I’m listed in Martindale-Hubbell, the legal equivalent of the Yellow Pages. But I haven’t gotten any clients from the listing, as far as I can tell, and I’m thinking of dropping it at the end of this year.
I’m building the practice mostly on personal referrals from clients and other lawyers, and on the Internet. I’ve hung out my cybershingle. From day one, I’ve had my own website, and people find it. I also use a string of paid search terms to drive traffic to the site. When people type “telecom attorney” or any of dozens of telecom-related terms into Google or Overture, my name and website appear in the paid listings on the right side of the screen. It’s cheap and very cost effective. Because I pay based on the number of visitors who click through to my site, not whether or not they sign up as a client, the arrangement is not a violation of any state’s lawyer advertising or fee sharing rules.
All of the people who contact me via the “Contact me” box on my website are adults. Most are American. And many are very, very confused. It took me a while to realize why. The reason—and it’s the dirty little secret of the Internet—is that most Americans adults don’t understand the difference between regular and paid search results, even though Google and Overture put them in different colored boxes and label them. (I’m not making this up, as Dave Barry would say.) I recently read that a study by the Pew Institute found that more than two-thirds of adults do not understand the difference. The article didn’t report the rate for teenagers; I suspect they all know the difference. This confusion often has hilarious results. About once a week, I get an email from an irate customer who typed in the name of a communications company and selected my website from the paid search results on the right side of the Google screen. They clearly do not read the material on my website before they find and fill out the “Contact me” form. I can tell from their emails that they believe I work for whoever their personal devil of a telecom carrier is. There is a definite pattern, with fully two-thirds complaining about over billing or inadequate service by AT&T Wireless. An alarmingly large number of my website correspondents send me their Social Security number, for reasons that I can never figure out. There’s also a subset of these confused souls who write to explain that an ex-husband or ex-girlfriend is now using the mobile phone and that the bill should henceforth be sent to the ex (and in some cases unpaid bills going back months should also go to the ex). Of course, these jilted lovers are only too happy to give me their ex’s Social Security number in the email. I am convinced it won’t be long until divorcing couples will be fighting over who gets custody of the phone number.
Not all those whose elevators don’t go all the way to the top send emails. Some call, since my phone number is also on the website. I spent a half hour on the phone one evening with a gentleman who has a program devoted to alien abduction and related phenomena on an Internet-based UFO radio network. He was being fined by the FCC for illegally broadcasting his show over the airwaves into Philadelphia, but he claimed he only did it because he was mad that he couldn’t get his program on a local AM or FM broadcast station “because Clear Channel has bought up all the stations in town.” He wanted to fight the FCC fine because when the ether-sniffing engineers from the FCC came out to his house and caught him red-handed making pirate broadcasts, they told him they’d fine him if he did it again. To his horror, the higher ups back at FCC headquarters didn’t look so lightly on his form of social protest and a few months later issued a fine for that first violation. I convinced him that it was not worth spending thousands of dollars in legal fees to present a defense that amounted to “Sure I did it, but the FCC geeks who came to my house said they wouldn’t do anything this time.” I’ve since regretted not trying to sign him up as client. He still would have had to pay the fine, but I might have helped him recoup some of the money by signing a content deal with Sirius or XM satellite radio. If there isn’t yet an alien abduction channel on satellite radio, there should be soon.
And then there is the woman who keeps sending me letters under the mistaken impression that I have the power to get her a copy of her Sprint cell phone bill, which she keeps assuring me will prove her innocence on whatever charges she’s in jail awaiting trial on. I’ve forwarded each piece of correspondence to her father, who has power of attorney and should be able to get a copy of the bill. What amazes me is that it appears she’s still using the mobile phone in jail. I had no idea the prison system was so enlightened.
Somewhere between the nut jobs and real clients are the entrepreneurs. They find my website regularly too, each with a different take on the American dream. Some want to buy a radio station, with no idea that a station anywhere near a large market costs millions of dollars. Some want to bid in auctions of radio spectrum, but they have no cash. My favorite was a long haul trucker who called me while driving up Interstate 95 in Florida. He’d found my number while surfing the web at a truck stop in Gainesville. A couple guys at the truck stop bar had told him that there was big money to be made investing in towers for mobile telephone antennas and he wanted to find out how to get in on the ground floor. I explained that he was about ten years too late.
I can attest that the entrepreneurial spirit is spreading like wildfire across the globe. My cybershingle leads people from all over the world to get in touch with me. I’ve been contacted by VoIP entrepreneurs from Malaysia, a vice president of a Saudi Arabian trading company, and the chief technical officer of a 21st century city being built on a man-made island off the coast of Dubai. My most recent client is trying to put together a consortium to build a fixed wireless network in a Caribbean nation. Even if the project doesn’t succeed, it will be an interesting ride.
My experiment in hanging out a cybershingle has brought me numerous clients all over the United States, many of whom I have never met except by email and over the phone. Just as important, it provides a steady stream of missives with high entertainment value, something that I’ve found sadly lacking in most legal jobs. On both counts, it’s a rousing success.
Mark Del Bianco’s telecommunications and antitrust law practice is located in the Washington D.C. area. He represents clients across the United States and in a number of foreign countrues. His website is www.markdelbianco.com.