Boring but important fact: law firm clients of all types – sophisticated, unsophisticated, big, small (and everywhere in between) increasingly use the Internet to research, vet, and select their lawyers. This is not news. But what is noteworthy is that online ratings & reviews of lawyers generated by the public are becoming a more predominant part of the overall picture of your firm that prospective clients see when they look you up online. You may want to address that.
Ratings are not new either. I’m old enough to remember when Martindale-Hubbell’s highly coveted AV ratings were doled out in giant-book form. Indeed, Martindale’s own website refers to them as the “gold standard in attorney ratings…for more than a century”. But the Martindale ratings and others of their ilk were (and remain) peer-review systems that reflect recognition from within the profession, and followed fairly strict protocols on who gets input into your firm’s reputation. More recently, ratings and reviews on such un-lawyerly locales as Facebook, Yelp, Google “My Business” pages and elsewhere now form part of the online landscape in which your firm is regularly being evaluated. And in those forums, it is not your law school chums passing judgment on your merits, but rather the public at large.
Lawyers tend to come from the factory with our operational settings pre-programmed to “control freak”. Let’s just say we like to have a hand in. . .well, pretty much everything really. And that sentiment is doubly true if the matter in question has a direct bearing on our professional reputation. But in the open arena that is online reviews, lawyers and firms don’t have total control over what is being said about them. That may in fact be a considerable part of their attraction. At this stage we are all accustomed to seeing consumer reviews included right within the product pages on major consumer websites including everything from iTunes to Best Buy to Home Depot (to name just a few I personally use regularly). They add credibility to the evaluation of the product in question. A 2014 Ipsos survey found that Millennials consider User-Generated Content (aka “UGC”) such as peer reviews (that would be their peers, not yours) 50% more trustworthy than other media sources, including traditional media. (I know, I know, Millennials aren’t your client base. . . yet). As the public comes to ever more regularly rely on such public ratings in other aspects of life, it is only natural that this same approach will be applied to the legal profession.
Of these newer rating/review platforms, the most important in my view is Google “My Business” Pages, which show up in both regular Google searches and Google Map searches. You may not think you are familiar with this Google feature, but you have almost certainly encountered it already. If you Google your law firm’s name, you are likely to see a box in the right hand column of the search results page with a map, possibly some photos, and other summary information about your firm – including reviews already submitted and a place to leave a rating (zero to five stars) and/or a review. This is your Google “My Business” listing in action – for better or worse. (If your firm has not yet taken control of your “My Business” page and filled out your profile, the time to do so is now).
The inevitable result when firms ignore their online profiles is that a disproportionate number of the reviews that do filter in tend to be from those with an axe to grind, legitimately or otherwise. As an example, I just randomly did a Google search on the name of one of the larger blue-chip firms in Western Canada: a pre-eminent firm of 50+ lawyers. The Google reviews? Two results. The first one was a glowing 5-star review from 8 years ago that has the distinctly artificial scent of having been awkwardly written by one of the firm’s own people. (“I highly recommend reviewing their publications that provide a summary outline of legal issues and developments in force at the time of writing.”) Sorry folks, but that’s now how actual humans typically write. The second review is a one-star diatribe from six months ago that starts off with a tirade about the firm forcing kids to be tax shields for their parents contrary to the Income Tax Act and goes downhill from there before asking that someone “take these greedy corporate lawyers down”.
Neither of these reviews accurately reflect the typical client experience of what I know to be a very high quality firm but that’s what’s currently online forming part of the firm’s reputation for those less familiar with the legal market.
Most lawyers and firms I know are not of the chest-thumping type and it is not intuitive to them to ask for a positive online rating or review from their many satisfied clients (especially when they don’t know Google My Business reviews even exist). But asking your satisfied clients to leave you a positive review or rating online is an appropriate and useful step in my opinion to ensure that a more representative picture of your work emerges. The reality is that public online ratings and rankings tools are out there and being used and relied upon with increasing frequency. Encouraging your many satisfied clients to engage with these tools doesn’t provide you control over the results, but does enable you to have what is likely to be a positive influence on your online reputation, and let the quality of your work speak for itself. Let’s hope it speaks volumes.