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Using Your Retainer Agreement to Generate Positive & Deter Negative Client Reviews

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Increasingly, consumers are exploring client reviews on sites like Avvo  as part of the process of hiring a lawyer.  Though it’s hardly scientific evidence, over the past few weeks alone, I’ve heard several examples of lawyers who attracted fairly decent cases as a result of their presence on Avvo or Yelp and the positive feedback they’d received. [Note: See Comments for caveat]

Even though testimonials and reviews can assist consumers in hiring a lawyer, many lawyers are reluctant to participate in review sites.  A few harbor concerns about ethics restrictions, which in my view, are a red herring since grievance boards can’t infringe on clients’ First Amendment rights to comment about their lawyers.  Still, most lawyers don’t use review sites because of fears that disgruntled clients or competitors will post negative reviews.

Technology innovations address some of these concerns.  As I blogged at Solo Small Firm Innovation, computer scientists have developed algorithms that can ferret out fraudulent reviews.  Though currently fairly accurate, as these tools gain more use, they’ll improve even more.

In addition, lawyers retain more control over the review process than they believe.  Though lawyers can’t stop a clients from posting negative reviews, at a minimum, you can encourage clients to come to you first to fix the problem. Likewise, you can also proactively seek reviews from clients satisfied with your service to balance negative reviews that you might receive.

Sounds great in theory – but in practice, how can you ensure that clients come to you with complaints or take the time to fill out a review?  Through your  21st Century Retainer Agreement and Law Firm Policies, of course.  As part of your retainer letter (or better yet, as an appended Law Firm Policy sheet, so you don’t clutter the basic agreement), consider the following clause:

The Firm encourages clients to provide feedback on your experience with us.  You can do so by contacting the Firm directly at [insert email or phone].  If you were particularly satisfied with your experience, we invite you to post a review on the Firm’s profile page on [list review sites and a direct link to the site]  More importantly, if you’ve had a negative experience, the Firm urges you to contact us/Attorney by phone, email or at [direct complaint email] so that we can address the problem directly

You can play around with the language, but the general purpose of the clause is to encourage positive reviews and at the same time, discourage negative rants by providing an outlet for complaints.  

This approach won’t work for truly irrational clients with a vendetta against you or all lawyers. But at a minimum, the process can flesh out those clients who may have had a negative experience but are more interested in simply fixing it or receiving a partial refund than raging against you.

At the end of the day, a retainer agreement is like any other contract:  a tool for reducing risk in the face of uncertainty.  Ignoring review sites or trying to shut them down isn’t particularly productive or effective.  After all, there’s nothing to stop clients from visiting these sites themselves, or setting up their own site and ranting about your incompetence.  Because review sites are here to stay, the far better response is to design an approach to minimize any risks that these sites may pose.  A retainer agreement or law firm policy can do that.

Curious to find out what you can do with that Retainer Agreement of yours?  Learn how to use it for subscription services, Groupon deals, flat fees and much, much more if you sign up for the 21st Century Retainer webinar on September 6.  Details and registration here.

  • shg

    “I’ve heard several examples of lawyers who attracted fairly decent cases as a result of their presence on Avvo or Yelp and the positive feedback they’d received.”
    This strikes me as a bit vague for such a dubious assertion. Perhaps you could provide the supporting details?

  • Josh Camson

    While reading that quote I thought “I’ll be curious to hear what Scott has to say about that.” Not surprised at all. I agree that the assertion is a bit vague. But I’m guessing the only two things it could mean are: someone wanted to hire Attorney Jones, googled that person, saw they had a good review on Avvo, and went for it. But they must have met Attorney Jones or heard about them somewhere or someone went to Avvo and just typed in a zip code to find a lawyer. Seems like the latter is unlikely when dealing with a big case.

  • shg

    I really don’t mean to always be so negative about potential business sources, but rather to question the stream of vague claims that gives rise to new solos thinking they can make a successful practice off of Avvo.

    I just asked on twitter whether anyone has ever gotten a case because of positive client reviews on Avvo, because maybe things have changed and I’m just not aware of it.  The response was uniform, a resounding no.

    So if there are people who are making a living off Avvo, I would like to know how, what type of practice they have, what type of cases they’re getting, and that it’s true and not merely BS spread by internet marketing cheerleaders.

    If it’s real, people should know. If it’s not, people should know too. There is no reason to be vague, or guess, or fabricate stories of other people’s success (or failure, for that matter). Let’s deal with whatever the truth is, and use it to help all of us to focus our energies on what really works.

  • myshingle

    Scott is right to call me out because there are too many vague assertions (Josh – you don’t have to wait for Scott to respond – your instincts were accurate and you are welcome to criticize too. I appreciate feedback).  I don’t have the names, but I saw two postings (I believe on Solosez but may have been on a protected marketing list) where a lawyer had said that a colleague referred a case. The referral called and mentioned that he’d seen positive Avvo feedback. In another situation, the contact came either from a Google search followed by a review of ratings at Avvo.  I believe that the cases were of middle value – not dogs but not 7 figure PI cases. To be clear, there were just two examples.  
    But – the fact that consumers are looking to Avvo to find lawyers and finding reviews suggests that it is something lawyers may want to consider.   
    More importantly, even if you want to discount Avvo for the positive, there is still the negative:  nothing stops a client from posting a scathing review whether you claim your profile or not.  Same on Yelp.  Thus, including a clause that invites clients to bring the issue to your attention before they post something negative gives a lawyer a chance to take corrective action which is a positive.

  • shg

    I think your negative feedback point is far stronger. By giving disgruntled clients a meaningful way to address their dissatisfaction, you prevent them from venting on the internet.

    Of course, the other side is that if the disgruntled client isn’t satisfied with how the lawyer handles their dissatisfaction, he could end up twice as unhappy and even more inclined to leave negative reviews.

    It’s a slippery slope.

  • Patrick

    Recently, there was a discussion of Avvo on a list serve that I belong to. A lawyer offered to post a good review on Avvo for anyone who wanted one. The ability to post a recommendation for lawyer whom you do not know raises a question about the validity of the postings on Avvo.
    One lawyer commented that s/he was happy with Avvo and had received many cases because of it. I went to Avvo and the lawyer’s profile was prominently displayed and yes, there were dozens of glowing endorsements from clients and other lawyers.
    A few years ago, an attorney who I do not know very well, sent out an email request to the local defense bar seeking good reviews on his Avvo profile because a client had posted a poor review. I did not respond to his request because I did not know him well enough to provide an honest review.  
    Some areas of practice, family law and criminal law, spur more client complaints and bar grievances than other areas. Many of those complaints are not valid. I do not want a vindictive client to post an undeserved poor review against me for prospective clients to see.
    I am hesitant to use Avvo because of its questionable validity and the possible repercussions of a vindictive client. Maybe the public who uses Avvo to find a lawyer does not know and/or care about this. And maybe many lawyers active on Avvo do not care either. I must admit that I am bothered by the whole thing.

  • guest

    I think Avvo is stupid.  I can’t imagine a sophisticated client or referring attorney putting any weight whatsoever on its nonsense rating system.  It has no SEO value whatsoever.  If  you google “NY criminal lawyer”, you will not get the Avvo page for Sam Solo on page 1.  But if you google “attorney Sam Solo”, you will get his Avvo page on page 1. Once you claim your Avvo profile, you can’t unclaim it.  So Avvo makes its money from desperate solos who are suckered into claiming their profile and need to get their rating up to 10 stars for when unsophisticated clients google their names.

  • guest

    This is grossly unethical, but I’m sure many lawyers bring their laptop to Starbucks, set up straw email accounts, and post glowing anonymous reviews of themselves from Starbuck’s ISP.  The ISP can be disguised further by posting through an onion routing system. 

  • E. Cassidy

    It occured to me that an online client rant may also affect attorney client privilege.  I don’t know how often it would happen, but I would advise my clients not to post anything about the representation to avoid the issue. 

  • Dray

    Maybe the process of claiming your page now has a cost but there was no cost to me. I find AVVO to be helpful in my practice. The use of this service is not for everyone. I personally enjoy and financially benefit by other lawyers declining this option. We no longer live in the telephone book world. Choosing to list your office in my opinion reflects a standard of professionalism in that I have nothing to hide.

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