By Sameer Somal
Reputation, by its very definition is a nebulous, intangible and complex concept. Trust, along with an excellent reputation as a legal resource, cannot be directly measured like income and expenses. An attorney's reputation and credibility matter more today than ever before. Clients prefer to retain attorneys and firms with strong and positive reputations. The internet democratizes information and increased competition from both the attorney next door and cost-effective digital legal platforms, such as LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer and Nolo.
Partners at large law firms and solo practicing attorneys alike may overlook the importance of maintaining a digital presence, especially given their day-to-day priorities. The most astute attorneys recognize that a quality brand and strong reputation are their greatest assets. A quality presence online is a competitive advantage. Attorneys with stellar reputations gain trust from prospects, clients, partners, regulators, and colleagues relative to those with lackluster or tarnished brand. Law firms grow and achieve results through their reputational assets. Conversely, they decline and go out of business as a result of a defamatory or negative one.
"A lawyer cannot be competent absence a working knowledge of the benefits and risks associated with the use of social media."
-New York Bar Association social media guidelines for lawyers [June 9th, 2015]
This article will reinforce existing online reputation management guidelines and promote legal industry best practices.
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With an expansive new group of online communication platforms, effectively managing a reputation requires more effort, coordination and resources. Relative to just a decade ago, reliance on PR or internal teams likely yields less results today than bloggers, web-based media and non-governmental organizations. Law firms must now develop new relationships and forge digital partnerships. A network of supporters and partners, which includes journalists, bloggers, and industry associations can have significant impact on the reputation of a company because of their objectivity and ability to share positive experiences.
A lawyer's reputation is now not only defined by the value and results provided to clients, but also by the client opinions and reviews posted online. Furthermore, an attorney's response to a negative review is critical. Ignoring the post can be a liability because prospects often believe the accuracy of the review. Online legal communities provide a medium for both reading reviews, sharing opinions, and providing commentary. To build an exceptional digital presence, coordination of people and resources is required. Even smaller boutique firms must learn how to communicate intelligently and mobilize in advance of a crisis or emerging reputational threat.
"Community platforms that facilitate reviews and ratings on services, products, and experiences allow a small assortment of individual voices to become a collective opinion that can shape consumer perceptions and confidence."
-Laura Powers, Director of Marketing, Philadelphia Bar Foundation
A Proactive Approach is Required
To stay ahead of the curve, engaging content that follows proven reputation management techniques should be shared online with prospective clients.
The advice we give to clients is that the best offense is a strong defense. With a strong presence, you build digital resilience and develop a strategy or path for repairing a damaged digital footprint. The high quality content should be published on owned and managed, as well as curated website domains to protect from any future reputation damages.
Some digital assets that can be considered for proactive reputation management include:
• Active social media presence and coordinated approach for sharing content on LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram
• Profile listings on reputable business directories and portals as Avvo, Google Reviews, Hoovers Glass Door, Wikipedia etc.
• Organic earned assets such as feature stories, interviews, quotes, news and blogs about you, a specific case, or your practice.
• Paid digital advertising or PR media.
The presence of digital assets on high-authority domain websites will both enhance your digital reputation, as well as neutralize any confusing or defamatory webpages that appear in search results.
With clarity on issues that matter most to clients and prospects, lawyers can direct resources and improve communication accordingly. The success of a proactive digital reputation strategy is difficult to measure because it centers on your one first impression made on prospects, clients, colleagues, and partners when they search online.
"It's important evolve your online and offline reputation so they align with your firm's long-term vision for growth. A forward-thinking firm must ask what kind of firm they plan to be in two to five years from now, and what resources they need to achieve that vision. Managing your brand and your reputation are two essential components to success."
-Valerie Chan, Principal, Plat4orm PR
Reputation Management for Clients: Internet Defamation & Reputation Repair
Internet defamation is a growing area of concern for clients, but also an opportunity for attorneys. Quantifying the monetary impact of reputation lost or gained is subjective. Following the landmark case of Sue Scheff, the legal community has taken notice of internet defamation case. Sue and her company, Parents Universal Resource Experts (PURE), provided referral consulting for families of teenagers with behavioral problems. After a disgruntled client posted online that she was a "fraud" and "con artist," she sued for defamation in Broward Country Florida court. In November of 2006, Sue Sheff won her internet defamation case and was awarded $11.3 million dollars.
Online, you are guilty until proven innocent. Consequently, it is challenging to overcome negative press. If there are only two pages of search engine results when a name is searched and multiple negative links appear on the first page, you lack the opportunity to overcome the negative perception.
When a lawyer or client is found innocent and purported violations are dismissed, news and information relating to the case remain online. The demand for digital reputation repair and suppression is expansive. In the court of law, you may be innocent, but in the minds of your prospects, clients and potential partners you remain guilty on the internet. There are many situations that require immediate attention and sustainable solutions.
"In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing you can do is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing."
-Theodore Roosevelt [1858-1919]
One bad review is a challenge, but not responding to negative commentary may invite others, which will have a multiplicative impact when trying to correct or refute the bad press.
There is risk when suppressing content because low ranking and outdated content can be revived on primary search engine results pages by news or events with key word parallels. There is risk in not responding to a negative news article or review, but also greater risk in how one responds, especially when considering this American Bar Association tenet: "A lawyer may not disclose client confidential information solely to respond to a former client's criticism of the lawyer posted on a website that includes client reviews of lawyers."
View client complaints and feedback as opportunities to improve the client experience. With a more empathetic and collaborative mindset, online reputation will create better emotional bonds with clients and future prospects. We recommend a proactive action plan to mitigate the risk of future defamatory content.
Our dependence on the internet for information underpins the paradigm shift in how attorneys and their clients approach creating, repairing and monitoring their reputations. A law firm's success is now more dependent on what is said (and not said) on the internet.
The most agile firms are listening closer, making better resource allocations and investing in stronger relationships with strategic partners and clients.
Sameer Somal is the Chief Financial Officer at Blue Ocean Global Technology and Blue Ocean Global Wealth.