Yelp v. McMillan: Law Firm Astroturfing?

yelp

At least some people use Yelp, and other rating sites, in their searches to find a lawyer. Good and bad client reviews on Yelp can have an impact on people’s perceptions of you. And they appear prominently in SERPs. So, it makes sense for lawyers to concern themselves with what’s being said about them there.

Recently, a San Diego bankruptcy lawyer sued Yelp and won. Then, Yelp sued the very same bankruptcy lawyer alleging that he was leaving fake reviews (a/k/a astroturfing).

I’ll leave it to the civil justice system to sort out the details. However, the suit serves as a blueprint for what not to do online.

Don’t Have Your Employees Pretend to be Clients and Review Your Own Law Firm

In the Complaint (.pdf), Yelp accuses McMillan Law Group employees of pretending to be clients and reviewing their own employer.

Remember that, with respect to a nonlawyer employed or retained by or associated with a lawyer… who knows their employees, associates, vendors, etc, are breaking the rules, the lawyer is still on the hook.

Pro Tip: Don’t tell your employees to pretend to be clients and leave reviews on Yelp.

Even if you don’t get sued by Yelp, this will probably get you into hot water with your state bar. And if your state bar is out to lunch, you might even get smacked by the FTC or your state’s AG.

Don’t Swap Reviews with a Circle of Local Lawyers

Quid pro quo endorsements among lawyers is rampant (See LinkedIn Endorsements). Go to any of the major review sites and you’ll quickly recognize patterns of “review me and I’ll review you back.”

While perhaps not as sinister as pretending to be clients, if proven, this still breaks the rules.

If you know lawyers you think are good, by all means, let the world know. If they feel the same about you, perhaps they’ll even say something nice about you back.

The issue here is not saying something positive about lawyers you respect. It’s about the motivation for saying it.

Don’t Pay Someone to Leave Fake Reviews Online

This one should be a no-brainer. Alas, it’s very common.

Sometimes, it’s because of ignorance. More times, the lawyers know exactly for what they are paying.

Ignorance is no defense. If you’re going to hire someone to “do stuff” on your behalf online, make sure you know, review and approve everything they propose to do.

Sidebar: A Word on Yelp Specialties

Yelp listings have a “Specialties” section, which is a no-no in many states. Check with your state bar. If you can’t use words like specialist, specialties, etc, just leave that section blank.

Many of the rules governing what attorneys can and can’t do are vague, confusing and unduly restrictive. But this one’s pretty reasonable and clear:

Don’t mislead potential clients with false testimonials, endorsements, reviews, etc.

If you do good work, have happy clients that want to sing your praises and it’s permissible to do so in your state, encourage clients to share a kind word about you online.

But don’t fake it.

Your reputation and your license just aren’t worth it.

Legal Marketing

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  • http://www.thecyberadvocate.com/ Brian Focht

    Reminds me a little of the questions posed in my blog about hiring a third-party company to handle your law firm’s social media engagement and the ethical implications of “ghost writing” on a firm’s blog. The real lesson seems to be: if it’s supposed to come from you, don’t contract it out; if it’s supposed to be from someone else, don’t use a third-party to do what you couldn’t do yourself.

    http://www.thecyberadvocate.com/2013/09/01/third-party-social-media/