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When choosing a lawyer, consumers choose Yelp
Carolyn Elefant, Founder and Principal Attorney with the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant in Bethesda, Md. (FILE PHOTO: The Daily Record/Rich Dennison)

When choosing a lawyer, consumers choose Yelp

While review site Yelp.com is often used as a tool for scoping out restaurants or hair salons, the site is also attracting consumers with a very specific need: legal representation.

More than three-quarters of people seeking an attorney make online review sites their first stop, and 58 percent favor Yelp over sites like Martindale-Hubbell and Avvo.com, which specifically cater to the legal industry, according to a survey conducted by Austin, Texas-based research company Software Advice.

“This report kind of upsets the apple cart, because a lot of lawyers are comfortable with having a listing on Martindale or Super Lawyers, but Yelp just throws everything wide open,” said Larry Bodine, editor in chief of the site Lawyers.com and a former law firm marketing consultant.

While firms must pay for a listing on Martindale.com or an enhanced listing on Avvo.com, Yelp is entirely free. Its increase in traffic from consumers seeking lawyers is likely due largely to its name recognition among the public and its overall popularity as a place to prescreen businesses, Bodine said.

Since large firms have large marketing budgets and specialized boutiques have other means of attracting clients to their niche, Yelp and similar online review sites can have a deeper impact on attorneys who cater to the general public.

“It’s hard to say whether it’s a good development or not. You often have to take reviews with a grain of salt,” said Carolyn Elefant, an energy lawyer and author of the law blog My Shingle, which focuses on solo and small firm issues. “With Yelp, you’re definitely going to get the disgruntled clients, because they can post those reviews quickly. You’re not necessarily going to get as much positive feedback.”

Many lawyers fear negative reviews from Yelp users, Bodine said, but by leveraging a positive consultation or a favorable settlement into a client review, they can cultivate a body of user reviews that give Yelp visitors a good first impression.

“The ones that are really marketing-savvy already know it’s effective to put client testimonials on their website, but those are chosen by the law firm, and therefore an online review on a site not run by the law firm is going to have much more impact,” Bodine said.

Solos and small firms who are already inclined to do a lot of networking are fairly quick to expand their profile to a new platform such as Yelp, said Pat Yevics, the Maryland State Bar Association’s director of law office management assistance.

Accumulating those positive online reviews might be more important than ever, according to the survey, which included responses from 3,465 adults in the U.S. and was also reported in the American Bar Association Journal.

Seventy percent of those surveyed said they’d be willing to go out of their way to meet with a lawyer if he or she had better online reviews than a more conveniently located attorney.

One bad Yelp review won’t kill a firm’s reputation, though, especially if it’s unfounded, Elefant said. Law firms can respond to the occasional negative post in a way that paints the company in a good light, without attacking the reviewer or violating attorney-client confidentiality.

“Sometimes you can say, ‘We weren’t aware of this problem,’ and have them contact you,” she said. “There are definitely things you can do to minimize chances of getting negative reviews.”

The best way to avoid public criticism, Yevics said, is to provide the client with the best possible service.

“Most people will complain about a lawyer, not because of the results, but because of the way that they were treated,” she said. “A person who is treated badly is much more likely to go online and say something nasty, and it’s usually for something that has nothing to do with the legal ability of the firm or the actual case itself.”

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