The Price of Positivity

Oscar Wilde notoriously said a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.  Todd Rutherford knew the price of a good book review.  From the New York Times :

In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.

There were immediate complaints in online forums that the service was violating the sacred arm’s-length relationship between reviewer and author. But there were also orders, a lot of them. Before he knew it, he was taking in $28,000 a month.

While some were waxing poetic over consumer transparency, others were cashing in. 

Consumer reviews are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising and marketing, they offer the illusion of truth. They purport to be testimonials of real people, even though some are bought and sold just like everything else on the commercial Internet.

Obviously, it’s not just books that float in this cesspool.  Stories of lawyers floating requests for endorsements on listservs, or having their mother-in-law post glowing reviews of their legal skills, are legion.  Sometimes they’re trying to overcome a disgruntled client’s negative review, whether deserved or not.  Other times, it’s lawyers who have been hard at work for a week or two trying to manufacture an online persona of experience.  Usually, the giveback is they will lie for you if you lie for them.  But for all I know, there is a guy in a garage somewhere offering endorsements on Avvo for $5 apiece.

This is transparency in the digital age.  The Times calls Rutherford’s scam review business “story of a vast but hidden corner of the Internet, where Potemkin villages bursting with ardor arise overnight.”  Fabulous lies are manufactured for a reasonable price, and those who either adore the internet or make their living off it deny it’s a big sham. 

Whether they’re cynics or just foolish is neither clear nor important. What matters is that book reviews, product reviews, and yes, lawyer reviews, have been reduced to a scam designed to make “legal consumers” (as marketing call clients) their victims.  That’s right, a scam. A fraud. A big, nasty lie.  It doesn’t matter how many happy adjectives are tossed around to support the idea that online reviews enable people to make better choices if they’re written by phonies, fake and paid provocateurs. 

One might hope that lawyers, having both an ethical duty of honesty and a professional obligation of integrity, would refuse to engage in such deception.  But it’s so easy to do, and everybody else does it, and you really need the business, and you have bills to pay and mouths to feed, and you will work really hard to represent those people, even if they retained you based on a lie, and…and…

This is what’s hiding behind all the positivity, the glowing praise for the internet as the great leveler.  And the worst part about it is that some who read this will kick themselves for either not thinking of it themselves, or not having the foresight to join in the scam at the outset. You know, beat the rush.

Because the virtue we hold most dear these days is to make money, even if we have to be cynical to do so.  And lest my fellow dinosaurs think me overwrought in my distress over this, take a peak at what my buddy  Bill Henderson, a lawprof at Indiana, is teaching law students:
As my experience at the LawTech Camp [highlighted by legal futurist and technology consultant, Richard Susskind] makes clear, there is tremendous creative ferment taking hold in many corners of the legal profession, albeit the safe and established legal brands are not leading the way.  So that is our dilemma—in the year 2012, there is no conservative path that will take most law students to where they want to go. Everything options has risk. 

As a young lawyer once explained to me, integrity is a luxury that young lawyers can’t afford.  They need to make a living, and they will do whatever they have to do to accomplish it.  Without risk, there’s no reward, and as Bill says, “there is no conservative path that will take most law students to where they want to go.”  So why not?

6 comments on “The Price of Positivity

  1. SB

    In a generation attuned to instant gratification, it’s not necessarily easy to conceptualize the things that go into a forty plus year career.

    Integrity doesn’t seem to be one of the difficult to conceive traits, but then again, I doubt many law students know how few degrees of separation there are is a good client base. Certainly too few law profs could tell them.

  2. SHG

    They’ve grown up in an age of celebrity without talent. Most have never known hard work, sacrifice or adversity. And no 25 year old wants to look at him/herself 40 years down the road, all wrinkly and irony.

  3. Bill Henderson

    Scott, to be 100% crystal clear, honesty and integrity are skills needed for long term success. To my mind, in any field. But especially law. Dishonest and unethical behavior is risky, but it is also stupid because–in the long run–it reduces the number of people who will want anything to do with you. And rightly so.

    The risk/reward I am talking about — to be blunt — is for a young lawyer or student to log off of Facebook and invest time in learning why these new legal technologies are so appealing to corporations and consumers. Because that is, for better or worse, where the market is heading. Many ways young lawyers allocate their time does not build knowledge and skill that can be used to help clients. It may seem risky to devote 15 hours a month to learning about an industry and not directly chasing a dollar. But I think there is a big reward if done consistently and faithfully.

    The young longer who thinks that integrity is too pricey is misguided. Even if he/she becomes nominally wealthy, I would not envy them. The lawyer tradition I want to uphold is to put the interest of clients first. And then, derivatively, earn a good living. This means a lawyer has to be better, smarter, hardworking, industrious, and a lifelong learner.

    So again, it is time to long off Facebook and engage with the world.

  4. SHG

    I’m sure you didn’t mean to suggest that integrity be damned.  But then, I also think you don’t fully appreciate the message of Susskind and the legal futurists. When you extoll their virtues, it comes along with their rejection of traditional ethical constraints that stand in the way of ethics and integrity, and the embrace of tech solutions that skirt, if not completely circumvent, old school ethics and integrity.

    They have already defined themselves, and it’s not up to you to cherry pick their virtues.

  5. Bill Henderson

    Scott, I am happy to disagree with you on this point.

    Lawyers cannot stop history. But too many think they can. Lots of soapbox, too little factual investigation. Take rule 5.4. Many lawyers believe that not changing this rule will preserve the profession. In the meantime, nonlawyers are building legal business that are taking work away from lawyers. Clients are voting with their feet. Our rules don’t regulate them.

    Lawyers can influence history. But not if we are not realists. My message to students is pretty consistent. You need to be better than everyone else. You need to learn a lot, all the time.

    What legal technologists are advocating unethical behavior? Certainly not Susskind.

  6. SHG

    I believe you’ve misapprehended the message from clients. They want cheap. They want free. And there are scoundrels, like Susskind, happy to take advantage of non-lawyers’ ignorance and promote the cottage industry of cheap, crappy, pseudo-legal services.

    What you aren’t yet appreciating is the downward synergy of legal technologists’ claims. I’ve probably written 100 posts on various aspects of the unethical conduct. Feel free to look around and you will find the answers to your question going back years here. 

    In the meantime, you might want to consider this very enlightening video from the  Maurer Law Library at Indiana Law School, a place with which I trust you’re familiar and hold in relatively high esteem?  Maybe google and wikipedia won’t solve all future problems?

    (I just threw this in for lulz. Joe Hodnicki is too funny.)

Comments are closed.