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 :
While some were waxing poetic over consumer transparency, others were cashing in.
In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, GettingBookReviews.com. 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.
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.
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.
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?