What is your instinctive response when you want to find a product or professional service? You Google it, either to research your options, get contact information, or to look for reviews. In fact, according to a 2016 BrightLocal survey, 84 percent of people trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation. So how can lawyers actively manage and influence their online reputations?
The first step in managing your online reputation is to simply put yourself in the client’s shoes and start Googling: search for your law firm type, your city or area, your law firm name, the names of your attorneys, and any close variants you can think of. For example, if I try “William Peacock attorney,” “William Peacock lawyer,” and “Law Office of William C. Peacock.” I find my website, Avvo, Yelp, LinkedIn, Twitter, and a few other local listings, like Yahoo and Mapquest. Fortunately, there are no red flags, like bad reviews. Each of my sample queries returned different results, which is why it is important to try a few variants on you and your firm’s name.
You might find that your online reputation includes unfavorable results, including negative reviews. But you can turn any unfavorable results on their head by being proactive (by setting up your own sites, controlling your directory listings, and asking for reviews), being positive (in responding to criticism or negative reviews), and being prolific (in producing positive speech about your firm).
Be Proactive: Boost Your Online Reputation By Asking for Reviews
Happy customers are actually more likely to leave feedback that dissatisfied ones, especially when the services are high-cost or high-stress like legal services. The only caveat is that most states have rules against offering anything of value in exchange for a good review. Other states, like Missouri, require disclaimers when testimonials are paid for. Be sure to read up on your state’s advertising rules to make sure your request is compliant.
How strong of an impact do reviews have? A few weeks ago, a potential client with a messy litigation matter contacted me for help from California. I only handle transactional work, especially in far-away states. (I’m licensed in seven states, but currently reside in New York.) I tried to refer the matter to a friend and mentor in the area—but the client refused, despite my glowing recommendation. Why? He had bad reviews that said he was “rude” during a consult. Instead, the client pleaded with me to take the case—despite the distance—because of my positive reviews. Crazy, huh?
So, how do you get more reviews? Reach out to your most satisfied clients after their matter has concluded with a request for feedback—it’s shameless, but it works. If it makes you feel more comfortable, you can delegate the task to a paralegal or assistant, or automate it with an email—just make sure it gets done. It should be part of your file closing procedure to actively ask for feedback—before the final bill, if possible. There are plenty of tools to make it easy to do so, but the simplest is an email:
Dear Favorite Client,
I’m extremely happy that we were able to [do something awesome for you/mitigate the damage in your case]. It was a pleasure working with you and we hope the feeling was mutual.
If you have a few minutes, would you mind providing us with some feedback on [Google/Yelp/Avvo]? It will help us improve our client service and spread the word about our firm’s good work.
Thank you again for the opportunity to serve you,
See? It’s that simple. I’d suggest only asking for a review on one site—giving them a list of Google, Yelp, and Avvo links might scare them off. Pick the one that has the weakest rating—if they’re all equal, go with Google, which is the most important.
Another trick, which many companies employ, is to use a review funnel (or filter, of sorts). Basically, you build a page that asks the client whether they were happy or not, period. If they say yes, a link to a review site is presented with a request to spread the good word. If they say no, a feedback form appears, so they can vent to you privately. Here is a sample funnel I created in five minutes via Google Forms (free).
In theory, this is a great idea. But you should consider if this may qualify as misleading advertising, however, as you are basically filtering out bad reviews before they are posted and presenting a deceptively positive review profile instead.
One last note on proactivity: check in on your Google and Bing search results every few months to keep an eye on any new results for you and your firm’s names. You can’t manage a reputation you are unaware of, after all. There are services that alert you if something new is posted, such as Talkwalker and Google Alerts—the former is more comprehensive, but brings in an absurd amount of irrelevant junk (like Australian obituaries), in my experience.
Be Positive: Handling Negative Reviews and Third-Party Sites
Even the best, most attentive, and empathetic attorneys will receive a negative review one day.
The law is an uncertain business, dealing with stressful matters where success often means achieving the best possible bad outcome. And clients, being human, are sometimes saddled with unreasonable expectations. Over time, and given a sufficient volume of reviews, the overall tenor of the reviews for a practice should paint an accurate picture. But any given review may widely miss the mark. Accepting this reality is the first step in managing your online reputation.
There is no easy remedy for bad online reviews—the only cure is to respond with a kind message, and work to earn more positive reviews to outweigh the negative ones. The former goes a long way: I’ve seen many Yelp-ers backtrack on a negative review and up it to a more palatable three-star rating after a business contacted them about their experience and did their best to make amends.
Ethics are also a huge consideration here. When responding to negative reviews, you cannot disclose details of the case that are confidential. And even if privilege is waived, do you really want to be the jerk attorney who is airing a client’s dirty laundry online? Instead, respond with a message apologizing for any substandard customer service and requesting that the person contact your firm to make it right—it shows the public that you care about client satisfaction.
On another ethics note: don’t put up fake reviews. For one, there are rules about false or misleading advertising. Second, Yelp filters a lot of reviews, fake or real, based on whether their algorithm picks them up as spam. Likely triggers for filtering include multiple reviews from the same physical location (their servers will read the reviewer’s IP address and if multiple reviews come from the same internet connection, they’ll probably be flagged—this has been the case in a few Yelp lawsuits over reviews and “extortion”) or reviews from people who registered that same day and only reviewed a single business. If you try to fake it, they will probably catch it.
Some disgruntled folks won’t be happy with venting on Yelp and RipOffReport.com—they’ll also set up blogs and other websites to “expose” an attorney. They may even call themselves citizen “journalists” or “watchdogs.”
The most pernicious example of this was the Crystal Cox and Marc Randazza saga. She set up sites trumpeting the alleged misdeeds of a financial company, then allegedly offered online reputation management services to undo the damage that she allegedly caused. The Ninth Circuit nixed a $2.5 million verdict against her, even while citing a New York Times article on her alleged extortionist tactics, but she also aimed her blogging and domain name tactics on a lawyer and his family, including his then three-year-old daughter.
The solution? For one, more speech. Marc Randazza, a First Amendment attorney of note, has a lot of friends online who countered Cox’s incessant posting with their own blog posts. Randazza also went after the domain names, and in two legal proceedings, had the domain names seized and transferred to his name.
Hopefully, you’ll never have to deal with anyone who is this … motivated to write about you. But if you do, the cure is the same as it is for a negative review—more positive speech and, for extreme cases like this one, to hire someone who has experience with domain name disputes and cybersquatting to handle the dispute through the World Intellectual Property Organization.
Be Prolific: Build Positive Content
There is an old advertising adage that when it comes to expensive purchases, “long copy sells.” A person who is prepared to spend serious money wants as much information as possible. Such purchasers are far less likely to respond to buzzwords or taglines.
On top of this is the rapid growth of consumer reviews and increasing suspicion of products and services that have no reviews. Consider your own behavior when researching products on Amazon, hotels on TripAdvisor, or restaurants on Yelp. What does an absence of reviews make you think? Building up online information about you and your law firm by soliciting reviews and writing blog posts and articles. You can also sometimes drown out negative websites by filling out online profiles on sites like Avvo, Justia, HG, and Lawline—there are only so many results on the first page of Google, and these sites are more likely to rank than a disgruntled client’s blog post.
More content, whether via reviews, blogs, or articles, ensures that any potential client researching your services will have that “long copy,” a wealth of information to rely upon in making their decision to retain you.
Want to double-down on positive content? Gather those reviews and any testimonials clients send over email (some clients prefer to email you positive feedback, rather than posting it to a review site) and share those on your site. Positive feedback on your site is a trust signal—an additional reason for clients to trust you. Lawyer awards and ratings (such as SuperLawyers, AV Ratings, or Avvo ratings) are additional trust signals that carry some weight.
Bottom Line: Control the Narrative
A bad review can be countered by a positive response and a few positive reviews. A blogger’s rage-filled rants against you can be countered by other bloggers’ positive posts, and if they cross the line into extortion, a protracted legal dispute. And when it comes to good online reputation management, all but the biggest scandals can be drowned out with positive information on sites and profiles that you control.
Remember those free directory listings we talked about? Each of those is likely to rank highly in search results because of their authority: they have millions of pages of content and lots of websites link to them as a source of reliable information. Get a quality website for your practice, and link to it from all of those directory pages and it will show up highly as well.
Between the positive content, your website, and directory listings, you’ll increase the odds of burying older negative content onto the second page of search results. (Nobody, statistically-speaking, goes to page two of Google. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 75 and 95% of people don’t venture past the first page.)