Opinion: I Laughed, I Cried, I Give My Lawyer Five Stars
Much is being written these days about the practice of "adjusting" consumer-based ratings of law firms on the Internet. It seems that some of us have decided that the best way to deal with an adverse rating is to have family and friends love-bomb the service with "very satisfied" results, driving a bad rating to the bottom of the list or diluting its significance.
I read that Yelp, which offers regional reveiws of everything from law firms to restaurants, just sued a California law firm for doing just this. It seems that they traced the source of multiple favorable postings about a firm that had been poorly rated in the past to the law firm's own computers. Hmmm. Might be a better plan to go to the library if you want to engage in computer fraud. Leaving electronic fingerprints is never a wise idea.
Now I see where the New York attorney general has brought enforcement actions against a whole host of businesses, reportedly including law firms, which have been hiring "improvement" or "enhancement" firms to submit glowing ratings. I think you can do the same thing yourself using Amazon's Mechanical Turk, a site where you can post "knowledge-based" work for pennies per service. "I'll give you 25 cents to rate me as a good lawyer."
None of this is really new. I remember a friend some years ago who got BV rated by Martindale. The highest ranking is AV. He asked Martindale to reconsider, and as I understand it they allowed him to suggest some names to whom his new rating request would be sent. He called me to make sure I rated him well. I have also gotten e-mails from colleagues who wanted to be chosen as Super Lawyers.
What about when your colleagues rate you on sites such as LinkedIn or Super Lawyers, and you have nothing to do with it? Can you accept the kudos, even if you really don't believe that you deserve them? I understand that the Connecticut Bar Association's Ethics Committee will give us some guidance on that in the near future. I certainly hope so, because somehow I got chosen as a Super Lawyer. I know that because some dude called me to say so and offer to sell me an "upgraded" profile.
I think the way Super Lawyers works is that they send out questionnaires to the bar seeking nominees. They supplement the results according to some sort of secret plan. A cynic would suggest that the plan is to include all the prominent advertisers. I haven't advertised for years, so someone must have confused me with the real super lawyer Mark Dubois, of which there are actually several, in Massachusetts, in Washington and in the British Virgin Islands. I have never thought of myself as particularly super, so do I have an ethical duty to demand that they remove me? Same for the "endorsements" my colleagues place on my LinkedIn site. If I get endorsed for nuclear physics law, should I demand that it be taken off?
I was at some bar meeting the other day (they all tend to blend together, so I can't remember where or when) when someone said that things went to hell in a hand basket after Bates v. Arizona. Perhaps so. Once we acknowledged the always unspoken truth that law is also commerce, then the laws of commerce applied to our professional endeavors.
It has never been an acceptable commercial practice to trick or fool the consuming public. Think CUTPA. However, with very limited exceptions, lawyers are not allowed to designate areas of "specialization", perhaps the term which the consuming public best understands differentiates different kinds of professionals.
Does the average citizen looking for a lawyer assume that just because I have a JD after my name, I can do any and all sorts of law? Probably not. And if my colleagues what to express their constitutionally-protected opinions about my "expertise" in some area or another, should I have to police what they are saying? If a satisfied client gives me a great Yelp rating, should I point out that the result was actually pretty average and that any lawyer who can fog a mirror would have accomplished the same? If I could not ethically say something about myself, is it OK to let someone else do it for me?
Some of my libertarian colleagues say that the best rule is no rule, and let the market sort things out. Others would have me Google myself weekly to make sure I don't get any undeserved praise. I think I am going to go ride my bicycle and let smarter folks unravel this one.