Rating White Bread and Lawyers
Public demand for lawyer ratings is on the rise. As the above graph from Google Trends shows, searches for the terms “attorney reviews” have increased five-fold in the past five years.
The push for lawyer reviews is hardly surprising. Today’s consumers routinely check ratings before reserving hotels, buying books or selecting a roadside diner.
As I’ve been saying for years, like it or not, lawyers can’t stop this ratings train.
This reflects what may be the most pervasively misunderstood aspect of social media marketing, As marketeers have come to realize, the page of a lawyer's website that gets the most view is invariably his bio, which they've misconstrued to believe to be a critical force in gaining potential clients off the internet. Dopes.
People aren't finding lawyers on the internet, but verifying them, trying to ascertain whether they're any good. They already have a name, and they go to the lawyer's bio to check them out, just as they look to reviews and ratings as a means of distinguishing between ten different loaves of white bread.
But what happens when the same entity that purports to rate lawyers makes its money off "lead generation"?
Consumers want ratings, that much is clear. But pay-per-lead systems can’t give consumers ratings or recommendations if they want to remain ethically compliant – because a rating or referral transform the ethically permissible pay-per-lead into a pay-for-recommendation/referral.
No, it can't. This is where Avvo's initial effort on selling the legal profession on the legitimacy of its ratings fell off the cliff. No one who pays any attention at all believes that Avvo ratings are real, though they claim it's all some magical algorithm and they would never tweak the numbers. Much. But the public thinks Avvo is real. They want to think Avvo is real, because it enables them to do what would otherwise be too hard to do on their own, decide which loaf of white bread to buy.
After reading Carolyn's post, I spent a few minutes listening to my buddy Josh King, Avvo's general counsel and, oddly, webinar ethics guru, explain why it's completely ethical to buy whatever Avvo sells. No conflict there, right? I couldn't help but wonder, given Carolyn's correct assertion that ratings services and pay-per-lead services cannot ethically co-exist in the same entity, why she didn't go the next step.
It's not just Avvo, but its much older and uglier brother, Martindale-Hubbell (with its horrible system of rating lawyers AV, to assure that no member of the public has a clue what they're talking about) who has sought to bootstrap its rating system into a money machine. They are the Lexis-Nexis, Lawyer.com, marketeers, headed up by Larry We-Don't-Need-No-Stinkin'-Ethics Bodine.
At some point, we need to recognize that we can either lead or follow. People love lawyer ratings, flawed though they may be? You bet. But as these rating services have succumbed to a directly conflicted business model, and the only basis upon which they can claim something remotely resembling ethics is to plead "trust us," we would never put money ahead of integrity, it's time to come to terms with reality. This is all utter nonsense, and we, lawyers, have embraced a massive fraud upon the public in the name of getting some potential client to hire one of us over another of us.
That's all there is to it.
Interestingly, there was a very unusual comment to Carolyn's post (ironically immediately preceding a flagrant spam comment). For the most part, commenters at My Shingle unapologetically applaud anything they can use to rationalize their marketing, ethics be damned. Not this comment:
You assume that this ratings juggernaut simply can't be stopped. Why can't it? If lawyers stand up as a group for the profession and make clear at every opportunity they get with clients and the public that (1) ratings are nonsense, mostly because they aren't reliable, and (2) ratings are sleazy, so lawyers shouldn't engage in it, and that those who do are sleazy and aren't to be trusted with a client's life, then maybe the issue would go away.
We don't have lawyers soliciting business from mass disaster sites because we came to the conclusion as a profession that the practice is sleazy and leads to a race to the bottom. These things can be stopped if we want them to be. So, when a prospective client comes to you and mentions ratings, e.g., why you don't have ratings and your competition does, tell the prospective client that he or she should not go to any lawyer that uses ratings systems; and that the use of ratings is a sign of a sleazy lawyer.
Don't want to be party to the race to the bottom? Don't want to spend your nights thinking up excuses for lying to your "leads"? You're not alone. Nor am I. Nor is Brian Tannebaum. Nor is Mark Bennett. Even if the ABA and state bar associations have given up hope.
And for the wag who will feel compelled to ask the question, "but if we can't use these schemes, how are we supposed to get business?", how about web 3.0, doing good work and conducting yourself with integrity? Just because sleaze is out there doesn't mean we have to embrace it or accept it. We can fight it. After all, fighting bad things is what lawyers are supposed to do.