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Lawyer Review Sites

 How DARE You?

shutterstock fist thru computer

There was a time when I lived or died by on-line client reviews.  I searched my name regularly, checked the sites I knew about, and had either a terrific day or a terrible day, depending upon what I read.  While there is no doubt that on-line reviews can have a tremendous financial impact upon a business, I took what clients wrote to heart.

Online reviews are permanent.  A bar complaint is handled confidentially.  The internet is forever and the number of review sites has exploded.  Now nearly every business, from restaurants to lawn care, is subject to the on-line opinions of customers. It’s hard not to take a scathing review personally.

I am not the only one who agonized over what I read.   Some business owners have even gone so far as to file suit against their detractors, usually resulting in bad outcomes.  My fascination with these sites drove me to do some research of my own.  Common sense told me that an anonymous review was cowardly.

Turns out others agree.  According to a recent article in Times Magazine, the prominent Travel Channel speaker Andrew Zimmer  stated that “[y]elp essentially gives a tremendous forum for a bunch of uninformed morons to take down restaurants.” Most of these sites require nothing more than an internet connection—no identification or accountability whatsoever.  Anonymity breeds bad behavior.

Anonymity, though, is the least of the problems with on-line review sites.  Why should anyone believe the words of a total stranger who won’t stand by his opinion? Even if the review is signed, you probably don’t know the writer personally.  To give weight to this type of review, where you have no idea if the writer is, say, Bernie Madoff from his prison cell, is foolhardy.  If you walked up to a stranger at a Bengals’ game and asked for the name of the best steak-house around, there is no way to measure the value of what you’re being told.  You wouldn’t know for sure until you actually tasted the steak.  Yet, this is exactly what on-line reviews do.

Are on-line review sites legitimate at all?

Which review is fake?

1.  I have stayed at many hotels traveling for both business and pleasure and I can honestly say that the James is tops.  The service at the hotel is first class.  The rooms are modern and very comfortable.  The location is perfect within walking distance to all of the great sights and restaurants.  Highly recommend to both business travelers and couples.

2.  My husband and I stayed at the James Chicago Hotel for our anniversary.  This place is fantastic! We knew as soon as we arrived we made the right choice! The rooms are BEAUTIFUL and the staff very attentive and wonderful!!  The area of the hotel is great, since I love to shop I couldn’t ask for more!!  We will definitely be back to Chicago and we will for sure be back to the James Chicago.

Jeff Hancock of Cornell University has studied what is called “opinion spam,” or “phony positive reviews created by sellers to help sell their products, or negative reviews meant to downgrade competitors.”    Relying upon algorithms, word choice statistics, and volunteer Cornell students, he has determined that humans are very bad at spotting sham reviews. Computers, however, can detect fakes within a fair degree of certainty.  Review Skeptic has a platform where hotel reviews can be inputted to see if the computer says its real or not.

On-line reviews are suspect for another reason.  No computer can detect the relationship between the writer and the company under scrutiny. Small independent hotels were found to have far more positive online reviews on one site as opposed to another.  The reason?  People associated with the hotels were able to manipulate the reviews on the site that did not confirm whether the reviewer had even stayed at the hotel.  One restaurant received a bad review on yelp before it even opened!  Clearly, gaming the system is rampant.

That Pesky Attorney-Client Privilege

There is another layer of potential peril to lawyers with on-line review sites.  A Chicago employment lawyer responded to a negative on-line review as follows:

“I dislike it very much when my clients lose, but I cannot invent positive facts for clients when they are not there. I feel badly for him, but his own actions in beating up a female co-worker are what caused the consequences he is now so upset about.”

Ultimately, the attorney received a reprimand for exceeding the scope of what she needed to say to defend herself.  The reference to beating up a co-worker revealed the client’s identity, thereby breaching the privilege, even though he allegedly did not provide his last name on the site.  The lawyer’s attorney cautioned other lawyers to “[b]e cautious that if they choose to respond, that their response does not exceed what is necessary to respond to the review and should be mindful that they do not reveal client confidences in violation of the rule.”

So, a lawyer can be disciplined for responding to an untrue on-line review, even if she removes it, and the full name of the client is not revealed, and the review is untrue.  Like Demi Moore in A Few Good Men, I “object strenuously your honor,” to this decision.

What I tell My Clients

I have pretty good on-line reviews. Am I as good as my reviews say I am?  No, I am not–but I am also not half as bad as my bad reviews claim.   All that any client review shows is whether I successfully established rapport with that particular client on that particular case on any particular day.  That’s assuming, of course, that the review is real and not penned by my arch-enemy.

I now tell the clients who ask that on-line lawyer reviews depend on everything and to think for themselves.  What they think is all that matters.

What I Tell Myself

On-line reviews are usually unverified, frequently fake and can make or break a business, particularly a new business.  Lawyers have the added risk of disciplinary action if they  respond even remotely in kind. Lawyers must have thick skins and even broader shoulders to survive in this environment.  

One morning in May, I received both a five-star glowing review and a one-star flaming review.   I chuckled about that all day.  I’ve given up watching for the reviews because I can’t safely respond without risking sanction.  I’ve noticed that Big Law is seldom critiqued in on-line reviews; boutique firms, such as my own, appear regularly.  I believe this reflects the change in legal practice to a consumer base which is a great opportunity for boutique firms.  Ultimately, my presence in the legal profession is strong enough to cast a shadow.

Can I really ask for more?

[The second review is fake.  The first is authentic, although there is no way to tell if it’s true, since it is anonymous].shutterstock lion

Copyright 2014.  All rights reserved.  Anne Catherine Harvey LLC.

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