Black Mirror is a great and terrifying show. I can't get over one of the episodes and I can't get over how I think this links to the fraudulent online review system that many solo/small firm practices are based off of.
In Nosedive, the protagonist lives in a world where you are rated by everyone you come into contact with. Think of someone rating you as an Uber driver, but for literally everything you do. You buy coffee and if they rate you a 4 or a 5, you did well. An incentive to be nice. Spill coffee on someone and you get rated a 1 or 2. The story gets infinitely weirder, but the moral is the same: we're becoming caricatures of our real selves, obsessed with how we're rated by others online.
Avvo, Google and Yelp allow clients to review lawyers based on the work that lawyer performed (putting aside Avvo's patented "I saw you once at a Bar thing and can you review me well even though you don't know me in the least?" system). The overwhelming number of law firms listed have a solid five rating. If you know anything about the law of averages or regression to the mean you know that there's absolutely no way that all of the law firms listed can be excellent and stay excellent over the course of years. How does a law firm receive dozens of five star reviews? Not 4 out of 5 (which means really good). But 5 out of 5. Par excellence. Nothing better. It's like constantly eating food cooked by Eric Ripert. Are they making you have mental orgasms? It's impossible.
So, if it's not possible, that means someone is rigging the system (apologies for using that term at such a delicate time). Either the reviews are fake, or perhaps incentivized (there is one lawyer on Yelp who had to publicly apologize to a client for offering a $100 discount for leaving a review) or the sample size the lawyers use is tainted. Lawyers may send review links to clients that outwardly show that they appreciate the job that lawyers performed, rather than all of their clients, which would instead give a significantly more honest look at what clients think of the firm. (For instance, one Bankruptcy attorney was somehow able to procure over 100 Google reviews-all 5 star-in a year. The issue was that they had only filed a few cases. How does that work?)
The bigger question is: so what, who cares?
As a self regulating profession, we are obsessed with "protecting the public against deceptive advertising for lawyers." It's as if lawyers are wizards and can glamour a client just by whispering the words "free consultation" into their ear. And while we argue the merits of lawyers discounting their services on Groupon, there, right in front of us, are hundreds and hundreds of law firms using what could possibly be deceptive (see: fake) reviews to convince potential clients to hire them. And yet, we do nothing.
A simple solution: If you allow lawyers to use review services, you must enforce that they send the review link to each one of their clients at the conclusion of their case (I would propose a once a month courtesy review deferral, in the case of the "crazy" client). Put that on the statement of Client Rights and Responsibilities. Make the lawyer attest to it once they send in their CLE requirement affirmation. Make sure that is emailed to each client after they retain (in the case of lawyers who review their services). Make them self report how many clients they sent a link to. We can figure out a way to implement this. Draconian? Maybe, but I don't think so.
If we are obsessed with protecting clients, then we should protect them against the most obvious risks of deception out there. It's not the "We settled a case for $50,000,000.00" advertisement that's going to bring in most clients. It's the 203490 5 star reviews on Yelp, when your competitor has...11....that will bring in the client. Clearly, the latter is more deceptive than the former.
A final note: I've implemented a new review system for our clients, instead of asking them to go to Yelp. Clients are sent an email at the conclusion of our representation and asked to review us, and it's automatically posted online. We don't scrub it. We don't contest it. We do this for two reasons: 1. Potential clients should have an actual real glimpse of what others have to say about us. 2. Authenticity will make a come back. A 4.5 is more honest than a 5. A 3.9 is more honest than a 4. I think people crave (because I crave it) authentic reviews of how someone performs or how something works, rather than glowing endorsements. We can't tell what's real anymore. We've diluted 5 stars to such a degree that we think good is 5 stars. It's not. Hopefully we can see that more clearly now.