When Hiring a Lawyer Is Like Buying a Toaster from Amazon

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I interact with Netflix and Amazon and what this means for the future of the legal profession.

Take Netflix. I never rent movies that have terrible ratings.  And I have rented movies I’ve never heard of before because they have great ratings, even though in both cases these reviews are from complete strangers I know nothing about.

I also use Amazon from time to time, and when I am buying a product I base my decisions more and more on the reviews of complete strangers.

Why should we think that hiring a lawyer will be any different in the very near future?

For many people, hiring a lawyer will increasingly be no different than picking a movie to watch on Netflix or buying a toaster on Amazon. This is going to have a huge impact in coming years, as Avvo and other consumer empowering services such as Yelp and Google Places continue to grow in popularity.

Traditionally, lawyers haven’t always been very good at communicating with clients.  Many lawyers treat clients as annoyances.  Many people are unsatisfied, even angry, after their experience with a lawyer.

Internet reviews are going to change this.  Jerks of the legal profession, watch out.

In this new world that is coming, lawyers can treat clients well for the right reasons (because we are a profession, and it is the right thing to do), or for the wrong reasons (because those lawyers who don’t return phone calls will get bad reviews and will lose business) as more and more clients look at online reviews when choosing an attorney.

This is a development that we as lawyers should accept and embrace now, because we are also powerless to stop it.  Online reviews will only become more important in the coming years.

Doing well by doing good

As a result, online consumers of legal services will be the big winners.  Lawyer reviews will force lawyers to have better communication and give more thought for how we treat our clients.

Online reviews will also be great for lawyers who do things right and treat clients the right way.

Reviews will level the playing field with those lawyers who have huge marketing budgets but who offer poor service and results.   As more and more people turn to the Internet and online reviews, the lawyers who return phone calls and who spend the time with their clients developing strong relationships will be winners.

Law offices that have great legal support staff, from the receptionist who takes the very first phone call to every single member of that office who interacts with clients, will also be rewarded.  It is more important now than ever before that everyone is polite, respectful, and caring.

Of course the inverse is also true.  Lawyers who offer terrible client service will be increasingly punished.

The impact on personal injury lawyers

I am a Michigan personal injury lawyer, and I believe that many of these changes will have dramatic consequences for personal injury lawyers in particular.   Personal injury has been one area of law  where it seems the worst abuses of client trust has occurred.   Maybe it is because so many personal injury cases involve “one-offs” – cases where people are injured and there is no expectation of repeat business.  Maybe it is because many of these clients are less sophisticated and come from traditionally lower socio-economic backgrounds.  But for whatever reason, many personal injury law firms today have evolved into legal mills, law firms with enormous advertising budgets but very poor customer service.  The lawyers in these firms have huge case loads but very little communication with clients.

The “churn and burn” personal injury model of mass volume television and billboard advertising and then settling cases for a few thousand dollars each with almost no communication between the lawyer and the client  is bound to have trouble in this new world.   Those law offices with lawyers handling 300 files each (300 human beings) can’t possibly return phone calls and meet with clients.  These lawyers certainly can’t spend the time necessary to offer excellent communication and service.

Changing business models

Television works, of course, and it will continue to work for the foreseeable future.  But the business models that some firms have evolved to handle the volume of phone calls that this type of advertising produces means it will work less well in the future.

For a part of the population that grows larger every day, and for an entire generation of younger internet-savvy consumers, the old ways of doing things will not work nearly as well in the future as they have in the past.

In the past, it didn’t matter how lawyers treated these “one-off” personal injury accident cases.  But it will now.  And it will matter more and more in the future.

Dealing with bad reviews

No matter how hard you try, there will always be some unhappy people.  Some will leave bad reviews.  And we will need to be vigilant about our legal competitors  planting phony bad reviews.   Hopefully Avvo and Google will be up for the task when this happens, because it certainly will happen.  But the best defense is still a good offense, and if you have dozens of happy clients leaving very positive reviews, a few negative ones won’t matter as much.

The point is, we don’t have a choice to participate.  For many lawyers, offering excellent service will be about survival in the future.  As I said before, you can offer your clients excellent communication and legal service for the right reasons or for the wrong reasons, but you better offer it to your clients or you will not like the consequences.

We have to continue to be great lawyers, but now we have to be Nordstrom’s too.

– Steven M. Gursten is a  personal injury lawyer from Michigan. He is head of Michigan Auto Law and president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association. Michigan Auto Law has offices in Farmington Hills, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and Sterling Heights.