The Problem With Being Too Social in Law
The story of my firm’s genesis has been told almost ad nauseum in various classrooms and CLE lectures. I’ve described, in painstaking detail, how I started my firm at the age of 24 using little more than hard work, and a CitySearch.com page, which allowed clients to leave reviews. The clients, thank God, left positive reviews. The positive reviews translated to trust, which then led to more positive reviews, which then led to more clients, and so on and so forth. At the same times, an absolutely mind boggling amount of time has been dedicated by “lawyer consultants” to how social media and a web based presence can help any firm, at any time, anywhere, go from a few clients, to more than the owner can imagine. Hyperbole intended. But we know (or we should) that every meaningful business decision we make has consequences, both positive and negative. And while a large amount of cache has been dedicated to theme of whether or not social media and, more specifically, sites like Yelp.com, can increase business, very little conversation has been dedicated to what happens when you have that business. In other words: How does social media affect your firms day to day management?
In 2007, when I started my firm in the middle of Nowheresville, Brooklyn, there weren’t many lawyers who had sites where you could leave reviews. And, since I had about 3 clients total for what seemed like forever, I was able to dedicate an absolutely enormous amount of time towards each client’s case, which inevitably led to positive reviews. Fast forward several years, a few associates, and an additional office, and the tables have turned. The building block of business, my social media presence, has left me petrified on many occasions. What if I don’t devote the personal attention the client needs to their case? What if they don’t feel important? What happens when someone leaves a negative review on the site? What now? I can tell you this is a very real concern. Lost in all the conversation about how wonderful it is that a client can now always connect with their lawyer, in real time, is just how absolutely atrocious and counterproductive it may be for a lawyer to be reached at all times by a client. The new 24/7 service industry that small firm law is quickly becoming doesn’t so much as mention what happens when a client expects too much. Now, someone may be reading this and thinking “Daniel, this is what your promise all your clients. No client ever expects too much.” To this, I resoundingly state that you’re absolutely insane. Clients, like anyone else, come in a variety of forms. Some are hands off, essentially leaving you to do the work you need to do and paying you for it, while others are hands on and what to know what’s happening. Others are different. Like any other group, there is always a “fringe.” The discussion of this group tends to come out at Bar Association events when a few lawyers have had a few too many. Spouses also bear the brunt of having to hear seemingly endless stories of unreasonable clients who expect the moon even though you’re only supposed to deliver a flight to Miami (in coach). It is these clients that can be extremely counterproductive to the growth of a firm, specifically close to it’s inception. Hour after hour spent answering emails (which, and I say this sincerely, will contribute to the downfall of some practices) and coddling clients in transactions that require absolutely no coddling. And why? Because of the pervasive fear that the next review on the site that can reach thousands of other potential clients will be a negative one. This fear-this negative consequence from the rise of social media in law-can lead to a variety of management problems for your firm. A client that paid “x” will require you to do work that goes above and beyond that amount (I’m referring to fixed fee transactions, like Bankruptcy, Real Estate, and some Wills and Trusts here). An unending stream of emails about the status of the case follows, as well as emails at absurd hours of the night, which “require” an immediate response (as a side note, I believe perhaps the rudest thing a human can do in this digital age is to forward and email that was sent only a few hours prior, which because of, you know, work that you have to do, hasn’t been responded to yet.) to the case. And then the expectation that work not covered under the retainer will be covered, because, you know, it’s only a phone call or two. At some point this snowballs and you’re left dedicating an enormous amount of time on a particular matter simply because you fear the dreaded one star and what it means to a future bottom line for your firm. The same can be said for firing clients (you heard me) because they’re being completely unresponsive and sometimes self-sabotaging. You can’t very well tell them in direct terms what you think, because otherwise, the lawyer is “rude” “cold” and “unappreciative or un-sympathetic” in a potential future review. It becomes a stain on the practice because of the time devoted to a case that should have been passed on some time ago. It’s like a girlfriend or a wife you can’t separate from because she’s going to start telling people about your faults (a very real concern that Larry David so brilliantly focused on in Curb Your Enthusiasm). But it can realistically become a sort of managerial cancer on your firm. Sucking resources, time, money, effort, patience, stress, while providing nothing in return. This shouldn’t be confused with zealous advocacy. This, my friends, is two stops past that exit. It is something the lawyers who have been force fed the Kool Aid the riches of Social Media will have to deal with more and more.
Approximately one month ago, two things happened. First, a false negative review was placed on my Yelp page. We know exactly what clients leave reviews on our page, and this one wasn’t one of them. But that’s not what tipped us off. When clicking on the reviewer’s page, the main picture was that of a Bankruptcy Law Firm’s offices. Not the best way to hide the borderline idiotic and unsophisticated sabotage that lawyers have resorted to in the names of extending their online profile. A day devoted to taking it off our Yelp site ended with the review being removed approximately one week later. Approximately two weeks later, another negative review was posted on our Yelp page. This one posted by a real former client. The client went on about our attitude and our shortcomings and how absolutely atrocious it was to deal with us. The ironic part of all of this was I knew the match wasn’t a good one from the start. I could sense in the initial conversation that the personalities may not mesh, but thought “I’m being paranoid.” I wasn’t, and it’s taught me to trust my gut more often. Of course, because of our ethical rules, I was not able to respond to the review in the respectful and accurate way I would have preferred. Instead I wrote something along the lines of “Thank you, we strive to be good, and we’re sorry this didn’t work.” Something that killed me inside because I knew what the truth about the representation was. However, a funny thing happened. I felt a sense of relief. For 6 years, and what must be thousands of clients, I’ve been so incredibly fearful of that one star review. Everything done in the hopes that the perfect record would continue forever. I was a slave to it. But it happened. And clients are still calling, and referrals are still coming in. More than ever. And more and more I’m realizing the severe limitations of social media on a law practice that is growth oriented. In life, and by that same measure, in law, you simply cannot make everyone happy. And while there’s no problem with trying to grow your practice using the amazing cache of tools that social media provides, it’s critically important to be cognizant of its absolutely severe drawbacks.