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Internet Lawyers, Internet Problems

Yesterday, a friend of mine who is a lawyer mentioned to me that a former client had posted a negative review of him online. He was concerned.

My friend is about my age, and we’ve been practicing for about the same amount of time. He’s done nothing but criminal defense, just like me, but when Adrian and I were hanging our shingle, he was starting work at the county public defender. He gained some incredible experience, and he’s a great lawyer. He recently started his own firm. I try to send him cases when I can because I trust him to do a good job. He’s proven me right.

My friend wasn’t sure how to deal with his online critic, and sadly, I was very little help. For a while, almost every hit on Google for my name went to pages elsewhere criticizing various things I wrote based on my inexperience. The most popular pages on my own blog were ones that were peppered with comments mocking me for being green, and a few internet crazies actually took the time to put up their own websites discussing how much they thought I sucked. I was once in truly impressive company when I made the cut for some sort of Asshat Lawyer Twitter list. Oddly enough, that may be the most elite group of talented individuals in which anyone has ever thought to include me. I was quite flattered.

Looking around now, all of that appears to be gone. Some of my critics couldn’t afford to keep their sites up, it seems, while others just lost interest. No one really hit below the belt, so I didn’t really care at the time. I ignored it, and it went away. I’m lucky in that respect. Weirdo detractors come in all shapes and sizes. Mine were small and gave up easily. I never had any motivation to learn how to deal with online critics due to a combination of good fortune and an intense workload that stopped me from dwelling on it. Basically, I’m the last person to ask for the advice my friend wanted, something that came through quite clearly when I couldn’t offer him anything particularly helpful.

What’s interesting to me isn’t the solution, which I don’t know, but what the whole situation says about the nature of lawyer marketing on the internet. You see, I can put up a page about all my accomplishments whether I have any or not. With a little money and a whole bunch of free time, I could probably become the best lawyer on the internet. I could probably become the best neurosurgeon on the internet too. It doesn’t really matter that I’m not a doctor and don’t know the first thing about the nervous system or medicine at all. I can build any online reputation I want, and my puffery and white noise will probably edge out lots of the genuine article in search engine results.

Luckily, online hype is mostly powerful online. That’s a good thing. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. Here, that’s a good thing too. Dollar for dollar, few things are as cheap as an online reputation, and even the lightest esteem is probably too much to give it. Unless it’s the product of real work in the real world spilling over into the internet or it’s the result of a truly valuable contribution to the world that happens to be made online, it’s pretty much meaningless.

The flip side is that what the internet can giveth the internet can taketh away, and that’s just as important. What you can achieve online without discipline and hard work can also be taken from you without discipline and hard work. It’s a pretty agreeable symmetry, in my opinion, as it appropriately cheapens the value of an online reputation. Though it may be unfortunate that good people are frequently tarnished online by n’er do wells, good people are far more than just their internet personas.

An online attack doesn’t change the fact my friend is a good lawyer who serves his clients well. The potential new clients who look elsewhere because of a poorly written diatribe exposing a former client’s unreasonable expectations and inability to judge good legal work are the same kind of potential new clients with a high likelihood of one day becoming former clients posting poorly written diatribes exposing their unreasonable expectations and inability to judge good legal work.

If you’re an internet lawyer, internet problems are a big deal. My friend is a real lawyer though, so he really shouldn’t care. That was the inarticulate advice I tried to give him. I hope it made sense.

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