What Do Internet Lawyer Rating Sites Say About You?

Published in 2010
by Christopher B. Hopkins

Before any major purchase, chances are that you research your options on the Internet. This is not necessarily true for hiring lawyers. To date, potential clients and your competitors have had to rely on your website bio, news headlines or direct experience to learn about you – there is no Amazon-for-lawyers.com. Meanwhile, you are probably not doing yourself a favor with your own website – many law firm sites are bland and rarely updated. There are, however, independent sites which currently exist where anonymous self-described “clients” report their experiences with you. These sites can be difficult to find, much less verify, and often can be the source of harsh negative reviews which are difficult to cure.

U.S. News & World Reports seeks to solve that “problem” this October with “America’s Best Law Firms” which, like their law school rankings, will rank more than 5,000 law firms nationwide in 125 legal practice areas. Shortly thereafter, the “Best Law Firms to Work For” rankings are slated to be released in January 2011. See http://bit.ly/ch7DT3 As of August 2010, a limited version of their internet search engine is available at the Best Lawyers’ website, http://bit.ly/d9QKIz, and reportedly will be fully functional by the time you read this article.

If the forthcoming U.S. News rankings of law firms become as widely read as their law school reviews, this could marginalize sites with “client” reviews and set the standards by which lawyers and firms may seek to improve their image. On the other hand, U.S. News rankings might only benefit larger firms and overlook the distinguishing characteristics of smaller firms which may be invisible in the rankings.

Very few bar associations and legal institutions seem thrilled with the prospect of legal rankings — while lawyers and firms are likely afraid not to participate. As of mid-2010, nearly 25% of Florida lawyers had expanded profiles on the Bar website which listed, among other things, their Martindale Hubbell rating. In July 2010, the Florida Bar determined that it could not implicitly approve some, but not all, attorney rankings and therefore removed Martindale Hubbell ratings from attorney profiles on the Bar website. See http://bit.ly/9TLImb At that time, Florida Bar president Mayanne Downs acknowledged that there are at least 122 lawyer rating services.

Services which allow for “client” reviews have received an even harsher reception. The back-and-forth battle over Avvo.com lawyer ratings has been a dizzying process. Even if your practice does not engender itself to potential Avvo readers, be aware that Bar rules and Supreme Court opinions in this area could also affect comments posted on LinkedIn.com and LegalOnRamp.com. Moreover, as lawyers and firms turn to social networking sites, even comments posted on firm fan pages or the use of a “like” icon on Facebook could potentially trigger a Rule violation.

Shortly after Avvo.com arose in 2007, the Bar prohibited members from using Avvo ratings. In April 2008, the Bar committee reversed course, saying that Florida lawyers could reference Avvo ratings in advertisements. By September 2008, Avvo was once again determined to be outside the confines of Bar Rule 4-7.2 (testimonials in lawyer ads) and lawyers were not permitted to request clients publish evaluations online. See http://bit.ly/aTAs1Y After a legal challenge, new guidelines, and then a moratorium on the new guidelines, the traditional application of Bar Rule 4-7.2 does not appear to have embraced published social networking referrals or online attorney reviews.

This past July, the American Bar Association issued a 65-page report analyzing the U.S. News law school ranking list, noting that it “dominates the public discourse on how law schools compare to one another.” Not surprisingly, the ABA concluded that the U.S. News’ ranking was helpful but “the most thorough and accurate information about law schools comes from the American Bar Association itself.” The ABA was further concerned that the U.S. News methodology emphasizes a limited number of factors and that, in the end, students might be selecting schools based upon the ranking number rather than “a nuanced understanding of differences among particular schools.”

These same criticisms will likely arise with the advent of U.S. News law firm rankings (other published ranking systems exist but U.S. News could be a significant inroad into broad consumer press). According to a U.S. News commentator, the magazine collected data directly from firms in addition to obtaining peer-review and over 50,000 client references. See http://bit.ly/ch7DT3 It may be interesting to inquire of colleagues and clients whether they have been approached for contribution (if this article is the first news of the forthcoming U.S. News rankings, that is probably not a good sign). Recall that U.S. News has modified its methodology for law schools rankings over the years so the first generation of results in this survey may fluctuate in future years.

Regardless of how lawyers may be able to use rankings or whether lawyers are permitted to encourage clients to publish comments, the problem remains that online reviews may exist about you. Negative comments will undoubtedly be shrouded behind anonymous posts or online pseudonyms. Lawyers are traditionally quite territorial about their reputations and the online sphere requires heightened attention to ensure your name is clear.
Scan the comment section underneath any item for sale on Amazon.com and you will generally see reviews bouncing from an aggressive one-star (my favorite, a March 2009 review of the Kindle e-reader entitled, “Product flawed – will probably die after 1 year”) to a glowing five-star (“Great in so many ways!!!”). Unlike reviews of the Kindle, which are positive by a ratio of 100:1, many Internet denizens allow their dark side to be emboldened behind the keyboard, often due to anonymity and the absence of any authority, leading product and service reviews to be aflame with howling criticism. If that is true, has an unsatisfied client commented about you on the Internet?

To ensure the accuracy of your online reputation, it is advisable to first confirm that the Bar’s website has accurate information (often, that is where the ratings sites “scoop” their primary data). Check your profile at http://bit.ly/bafQDZ Next, run your name through the Best Lawyers site (above) and Avvo.com. Oddly enough, according to Avvo, 33% of my practice involves advertising which, in reality, arises far less frequently in my cases.

Google is, of course, a solid resource however you need to be aware that a “straight” Google search is not enough. On the Google home page, go to the tab entitled, “more,” in the upper left corner and run searches for [your first and last name + lawyer] through news, scholar, blogs, YouTube, and groups. Add words like “attorney,” “bad,” “avoid,” and “reputation” to refine your search.

Other websites with lawyer rankings abound: rateapartner.com, lawyerratingz.com, lawyersreputation.com, lawyersearchguide.com, and ripoffreport.com. Finally, employment sites which offer forums also may also be laden with personal attacks (everything from craigslist.org to findlaw.com).

Christopher B. Hopkins is a shareholder with Akerman Senterfitt (Christopher.Hopkins@akerman.com).

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