I had an unsolicited email the other week from something called Bark.com. It came to the email address of a website I run. That website doesn't offer legal services. The email was headed 'Family Lawyer Quote' and said that Michelle was looking for legal services in Bristol and it gave the categories 'child custody' and 'domestic violence'. It gave me a single line of further information about Michelle, which I won't publish here but which was not at all informative. It told me that
It’s completely free for you to get in touch with Michelle. We do usually charge a small fee to connect businesses with our clients, but as I’ve approached you there is absolutely nothing to pay at all - we’re just keen to find someone for this client (and for you to try us out).
Hmmmm. Referral fee AND spam alarm bells going off here.
I've realised subsequently that Bark have been spamming me for a little while to another website that I run (that also doesn't provide legal services), because when I searched for 'bark.com' in my inboxes I realised this was the very same company who seem to think that The Transparency Project offers a vehicle window tinting service (The Transparency Project is an educational charity concerned with family law not cars). This suggests that bark.com are spamming websites based on some sort of crude keyword search of the domain or site.
Anyway, having received my 'family lawyer quote' I thought I'd have a look at Bark.com. They seem to be a generic lead generation service, and not specific to legal services (which I'd have realised sooner if I had joined the dots between the window tinting and legal spams). I thought I'd see what happened if I asked bark.com to find me a family lawyer in Bristol, so I input my (private personal) details and submitted my 'bark'. Users have to select a category for their enquiry - categories are typically inappropriate american terminology of 'custody' and 'visitation'. There wasn't really an opportunity to input enough detail to make my enquiry meaningful, but in any event I wanted to see what happened if I just asked for a family lawyer in Bristol.
And whaddya know, but within hours bark.com had spammed my chambers account with this :
Our client Lucy has asked us to find a Family Lawyer in Bristol. We haven’t been able to find anyone yet, so I was wondering if you could help?
If you click the following link we’ll give you their contact details, including phone number, so you can speak to Lucy directly. You can see more about the specific details of their request below.
There's no charge for the introduction to Lucy, and there’s no obligation to continue using our service in future.
I've never registered with bark.com as a lawyer or expressed an interest in it. For all bark.com knows I am a thoroughly unscrupulous incompetent lawyer, although as far as I can tell it makes no promises to find decent lawyers, just any old lawyer who will answer your 'bark'. It's pretty clear to me that bark.com undertakes no quality assurance at all, and more to the point has no established paid up pool of lawyers to draw upon when someone asks for help. And there is no way I would pay a fee to be listed on bark.com as a professional. And nor, I suspect, would any other lawyer with half a business brain (although interestingly this email is worded differently to the one about Michelle and doesn't mention fees at all).
Incidentally, bark.com were already sending me unsolicited emails to my personal email address even before I'd finished creating an account and consented to receiving emails (I paused to go off and make dinner or something), which doesn't say much for their data protection safeguards.
After a week bark emailed me pitifully to say :
We’ve been searching for a suitable Family Lawyer to help you for seven days now. But, unfortunately, none of the professionals we’ve contacted have been able to provide an estimate.
Since putting out my bark I've not had a single response from a local lawyer. Which is encouraging, because any lawyer who is desperate enough to respond to this sort of unsolicited spam is not the sort of lawyer you want to instruct. They asked me for more details, but I didn't think it was fair to waste any lawyer's time with a made up enquiry.
Today Bark emailed me to say :
Your Family Lawyers Bark has now been closed - we’re sorry that we haven’t been able to find you someone for the job.
This can happen occasionally when there are few pros available and when they don’t feel they have enough information to give you an estimate.
We’d love you to try us again and place another Bark, see some services below that we think we could help with:
Having failed to help me find a lawyer, Bark is currently encouraging me by email to use its service to find a house cleaner and decorator. Entertainingly, it is particularly keen for me to search its database for pet cremation services. Since my Bark is apparently an Ex Fido.
I hope that Michelle has found a lawyer. Although Michelle ticked the domestic violence box I doubt Bark.com will have told her that she may be eligible for legal aid to pay for her legal advice or signposted her to legal aid lawyers.
Bark may be an excellent source of party chefs, bouncy castles and beauty treatments but it is not, I would suggest, the optimal way of finding a family lawyer - frankly google would be better. You can also find a lawyer via the Law Society website, the Resolution website, the Bar Council's Direct Access Portal (although I have to say I don't think this is actually fit for purpose either) or Juriosity website (new and pretty untested), and you can find a legal aid lawyer through the gov.uk site. With any lawyer you are thinking of instructing it's a good idea to see if you can find reviews or feedback, and look at their firm or chambers website and CV - and talk to them - before deciding.
[updated with screengrabs - forgot to put them in before!]
Minnie by Darren Bertram on Flickr (creative commons licence - thanks)