I recently finished a new website for my firm after working on it for months with my web developer. After getting pre-approval for the format and then resubmitting the "final" live site, I was disheartened to hear back from my state bar ad committee indicating that portions of the site violated ethical rules and that they needed additional information which I consider attorney-client privileged. In my testimonials section, I had included several quotes directly from returned client questionnaires that are sent to clients after their (chapter 7 or other legal matters) cases are closed. In the questionnaires, I ask for the good, the bad, and the ugly about my firm, the services they received the office, the staff, etc. and clients can either give their names or not. When they are returned, I instruct my secretary to white out any names or just to leave initials so that I do not know who writes them. The questionnaires are kept in a binder, available for review in my office, in the waiting area. My state bar wants the clients' names, addresses and telephone numbers! What is your take on this? I maintain that is confidential and privileged information first; also, the questionnaires are public information/critiques available in my office and thus not an "advertisement" for me to seek employment or services.
Finally, I don't know how I would track down past client names/addresses where there are only initials or no names at all.
Thanks for your reply! Keep up the good work on Solo Practice!
Answer: You definitely present an interesting situation. I'm not an ethics expert but I'll give you my common sense take on this conundrum.
First, let me commend you on doing follow up client questionnaires. You would be surprised the number of lawyers who fail to do this and it really is a critical tool in learning how you can improve the client experience. If you are operating a client-centric practice it is so important to know what you are doing right and what you can improve upon.
You did a great job honoring your client's confidentiality and the feedback is now a great resource. Keeping these completed questionnaires in a binder available for review in your office is also a nice idea for (potential) clients who already have made contact with you so they may review as an affirmation of their choice to hire you as their attorney. The problem for the ad committee is that once you put these testimonials on your website the ad committee in your state considers them attorney advertising because the only purpose in having them on the website is to further encourage others to hire you. They are an endorsement. As such, they feel it is imperative that if asked about their veracity by potential clients they can verify these are authentic testimonials from real clients. I totally understand this. Endorsements raise red flags today.
There was even a recent upset in New York about falsified online reviews promulgated by SEO companies hired by companies and some of their clients are having to pay huge fines - a few were law firms.
"Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing," Schneiderman said. "This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution. And companies that continue to engage in these practices should take note: "Astroturfing" is the 21st century's version of false advertising, and prosecutors have many tools at their disposal to put an end to it."
He said that 90% of consumers claim online reviews influence their buying decisions.”
“The investigation found that SEO companies were using advanced IP spoofing techniques to hide their identities, and had set up hundreds of bogus online profiles on consumer review websites to post the reviews. Companies advertised for fake reviewers on listing site Craigslist and Freelance.com. One SEO firm required fake reviewers to have set up a Yelp account that was at least three months old and to have written at least 15 reviews before they were commissioned to write fake posts.”
Let me reiterate: the issue is that testimonials (or endorsements), especially online, really only have one purpose, to generate new business. Therefore, they can only be viewed as advertising. You can't get away from this. And, as such, more than just taking your word for it that these are true statements, they have to be verifiable by those charged to oversee attorney advertising. By protecting your clients' identities there is no way to prove they are valid testimonials and not fabricated. In this current climate it is a legitimate concern for the advertising committee even though you are upset especially after going to such lengths to protect their names.
You have a couple of choices: 1) remove the testimonials/endorsements from your website and preserve your clients' confidentiality using the feedback for internal improvements or just within your law office as you described; 2) submit the endorsements and names to the committee with the clients' knowledge and approval putting a notice on your website that these testimonials/endorsements have been verified by your state's regulating body - now THAT would be very interesting because it may very well set a new precedent while also setting you apart from your colleagues. Turn this annoyance into a major positive given the climate of falsified reviews. The fact is, lawyers may very well have to do this in the future.
If you can't track down these clients, then when you are ready, do a new survey and ask if you may publish their names, etc. to your bar's ad committee but keep just initials on your site and include the verification statement. You'd be surprised that many happy clients (unless it was an insanely personal matter) will be happy to oblige. And you may just get even more positive responses because you have taken the extra steps to showcase the authenticity of the testimonials.
Have you run into difficulties showcasing valid testimonials/endorsements on your website? You can learn more about the recent New York Attorney General's settlement regarding fake online reviews here. Be sure to click on new FTC Endorsement Guidelines.