How Yelp Is Upending Lawyer Ratings and Reviews

If it gives you peace of mind to continue investing time and money in “pay-to-play” and “claim your profile”  lawyer ratings and reviews websites, then god bless and best wishes. But the mind share these vestigial marketing tools– “basic boxes” to check – continues to command could be distracting lawyers — particularly small and solo general practice firms — from leveraging local word-of-mouth communities, Yelp in particular.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_yohVlVbEA&w=420&h=315]

Consider this quick-and-dirty case study.

As of this writing, a general search for “lawyers” on Yelp’s San Francisco community site turned up 5,557 profiles.  General litigation and estate planning attorney Michael Blacksburg showed up near the top of the results page. His 63 reviews yielded a 5-out-of-5 stars rating. In a “Michael Blacksburg San Francisco lawyer” Google search, his Yelp profile was the first listing after links to his own website. A Super Lawyers link turned up down the page, but notably absent from the first page of results were links to “basic boxes”Avvo and Martindale-Hubbell.

Interestingly, a basic Google search for San Francisco immigration law firm Van Der Hout Brigagliano & Nightingale LLP – which had a 5-star overall rating based on two Yelp reviews — produced similar results. The top search result was the firm’s own website, followed by the firm’s Yelp profile.

Why Yelp Deserves More Attention from Lawyers

  • Yelp is the online ratings and reviews destination of first resort for service businesses - While it’s not necessarily a household name, Yelp has higher top of mind awareness with the general public than lawyer review sites. Ask an average person on the street whether they’ve heard of Avvo, Martindale-Hubbell or Super Lawyers and you’ll get blank stares. Heck, ask the average lawyer and you’ll likely get the same response.
  • Yelp has monster SEO clout – As discussed above, even a modest Yelp profile is easily found through a basic name search on Google. As of June 2011, more than 53 million people had visited Yelp in the previous  30 days. That compares with Avvo’s claim of 2 million unique visitors per month. Because Yelp is a multi-category site and Avvo is limited to lawyers and physicians, the sheer volume of visitors and the resulting flow of fresh content makes Yelp’s search benefits for members practically insurmountable.
  • Positive experiences in one service category means higher propensity among Yelpers to consult the site for other, unrelated service providers - In other words, finding a plumber or HVAC guy they like increases the probabilty that a Yelper will look for a dentist or lawyer there, too.
  • Yelpers trust other Yelpers - Every Yelp reviewer has his/her own ratings — even followers and fans — which factors into the perceived authority of their opinions. It’s also important to note that Yelp’s filtering and page rank algorithms favor the contributions of established users.

Have you established a Yelp business profile? What’s your experience been so far? Any advice?

How Do You Rate? How Much Should You Care?

Why do lawyers still invest time, money and attention in rating organizations like Martindale-Hubbell, Am Law, Avvo and Best Lawyers? I certainly don’t question the veracity of the satisfied customers featured on their sites, but I’ve yet to find persuasive affirmative evidence about their value to a broad base of practice types and firm sizes.

My working theory for their enduring pull on lawyer egos, attention and budgets is that it’s due to inertia and FUD (Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt). Fear that there’s inaccurate and/or unflattering information about them out on the Interwebs, uncertainty over what would happen if they stopped ”claiming” their profiles and adding the rating badge to their website homepage, and doubt about alternatives. In other words, a defensive strategy with an unclear, uncertain chance of upside.

It’s not just me wondering. The ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 also is looking into what makes them tick.

If the only time you pay attention to your profile on the various lawyer referral sites is when it’s time to renew a subscription, that should raise a red flag.

The hermetic secrets of their rating methodologies aside, lawyer “finder” sites just don’t seem on their face to add value in today’s social networking-driven marketplace. Unlike consumer ratings and reviews for simple purchases, professional services ratings and reviews are only credible if the seeker already knows, likes and trusts the reviewer. That’s why people looking for lawyers usually ask other lawyers or friends who know lawyers for recommendations. LinkedIn and state bar association sites are much more suited to that purpose.

When clients ask me whether it’s “worth it” to spend time and money on profiles, I walk them through some basic ROI questions:

  1. Have you gotten leads from ratings sites?
  2. How many, and over what period of time?
  3. What percentage of those leads turned into actual engagements (as opposed to tire-kickers, price shoppers or individuals unable to pay)?
  4. How much were the resulting engagements worth?
  5. Were they profitable?
  6. Do they generate more profitable business than other marketing activities/lead channels?
  7. Could you put that time and money to more productive use elsewhere?
  8. What do you think is likely to happen — not might, likely — if you did just the minimum to maintain basic profile information?

Even if you decide not to pay ”finder” sites for the ability to embellish and/or actively manage your profile, it’s still wise to make sure that the information the site compiled on its own is current and accurate. Better safe than sorry.

So Long, Blank Checks: Clients Saying Get with the Program, or Get Out of the Way

Over the past week there’s been a lot of social media discussion about the impact of lean, cost-effective, agile and highly capable non-traditional law firms and service providers on the business of law — particularly on traditional big firm, profits-per-partner models.

Last week Larry Bodine hosted an interesting and lively Martindale-Hubbell Twitter discussion about virtual law firms and alternative fee arrangements, and this week presenters at the Georgtown “Law Firm Evolution: Brave New World or Business as Usual” conference are hammering the point that disruptive innovations – and clients’ receptiveness to them — represent a fundamental shift in the industry.

As Rachel Zahorsky at ABA Journal writes today:

“If Susan Hackett, Association of Corporate Counsel vice president and general counsel, is correct, outside firms have only another 18 months before client patience runs out. ‘The window is open for another year to year and a half for firms before clients start walking and looking at firms they’ve never looked at before,’ Hackett says, citing legal service companies and nonlaw entities as viable alternatives to traditional firms.

‘Whenever a firm says [it] can’t hold to a budget number because of unpredictability, the GC still has a busted budget,” Hackett says. “It’s not unpredictable. It’s unforgiveable that they don’t know and unforgivable that we haven’t held them to that.’”

That’s a critical insight: It’s the clients who are changing, and the “winners” will be the firms who understand, respond to and anticipate that change, and who manage and market their firms innovatively.

A few thoughts on how clients are changing:

Tighter cost controls: Although it has been slower in coming to legal departments than other areas of business, aggressive cost containment is finally reaching the general counsel’s office. Overall budgets are constrained or dropping, and cost overruns for case management are not tolerated any more leniently than are higher component costs. No more blank checks.

Outcomes vs. outputs: Companies have successfully moved other professional services providers – mosted notably marketing – off hourly rate-based compensation models, reducing costs and improving productivity.

People Like Us 2.o: The new generation of general counsels (and the internal teams who work for them) are lean, virtual teams, and are continually pressed to do more with less. They value and seek out partners who understand and complement that dynamic. Good post by Timothy Corcoran on this topic.

The issue for clients is not structural — small/virtual law firm vs. traditional firm, or billable hours vs. alternative fee arrangementss. It is quite basic: How do I get the results I need with the resources I have? Help them answer that, and let those answers drive your business.