You know you’re a great attorney. You win your cases, you have impressive credentials, and your former clients always say nice things about you. So, how come you don’t have as many clients as you would expect, based on your experience and expertise? The answer may be as simple as doing a Google search of your name.
Imagine the following hypothetical situation: you need an attorney who represents small business owners in contractual or litigated matters. You call an attorney friend, who gives you the names of three attorneys who practice in this area (Mary, John, and Jane.) All three charge the same hourly rate. Since the recommendation came from an attorney and a friend, you only plan on calling one or two of the attorneys before you make your decision. (If you are an attorney, imagine which attorney you are most alike in the two scenarios. Further presume that it is guaranteed that you will sign the business owner up as a client with one phone call.)
You are only given the names of the three attorneys; no phone numbers, email addresses, or website. Your friend has no further information about these attorneys, other than they are supposed to be competent in this area of the law. So, you Google each attorney before deciding which one(s) to call. You Google Mary first. There are a few links that identify the attorney you are looking for. One is Mary’s website. You visit her website, but there is only basic information about Mary and what kind of law she practices. Her website indicates she has experience representing small business owners. There is also a link to Avvo, which indicates Mary has a 6.7 rating and an “unclaimed” profile. The only other link associated with Mary’s name is a link to something called “Manta.” You might consider calling Mary.
You Google John next. The Google search results include a photo, map, and link to John’s website and Google + page. You visit John’s website, and find several articles John wrote about small business owners’ rights; rave client reviews; and an award he received from a local business association. You return to the Google search and find a link to Avvo, where John has a completed profile and a 9.9 rating (out of 10). Your return to the Google search and find a link to Martindale, where John has a 5.0 peer review rating (out of 5). You are definitely going to call John, first.
Lastly, you Google Jane. You cannot find anything on the first or second page of the Google search results that have a link to any information about Jane. You cannot even locate her phone number online. You will not be calling Jane.
Your internet modem crashed, and you cannot Google anyone today (but you need to hire an attorney immediately). Your attorney friend gives you the names, phone numbers, and email addresses for the three attorneys, and provides you with some information. Your friend tells you that Mary graduated from the Ruth Bader Ginsberg School of Law in California, a second tier law school. She has been licensed to practice law for 15 years in California and Nevada, and has run her own firm of six attorneys for the last eight years. You will probably give Mary a call.
Your friend then tells you that John graduated from the Antonin Scalia School of Law in Texas, a third tier law school. Although he graduated law school almost five years ago, he only has two years of legal experience because he failed the bar the first four times he took it. He is licensed in Texas. He was unable to find employment with a law firm, so once he passed the bar exam, he opened his own law office. You will not be calling John.
Your friend then tells you about Jane. She graduated from Harvard Law School 30 years ago, after having made Law Review. She is licensed to practice law in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. She spent ten years working for one of the most prestigious firms in New York City before opening her own office 15 years ago. She has two dozen attorneys working for her. You are told that Jane has argued numerous cases before the United States Supreme Court on behalf of small business owners, and has never lost a case. You will definitely be calling Jane, first.
In scenario one, you end up hiring John, because he was the first attorney you called. In scenario two, you end up hiring Jane, because she was the first attorney you called.
After reading the two scenarios, it is reasonably clear that Jane is the best qualified attorney of the three. However, in the first scenario, you would not have even called Jane. What does this say about Jane (and her “competence”) as an attorney? One argument is that Jane is not a competent attorney in 2015.
Why not? Jane is licensed to practice law in New York. The N.Y. State Bar has added ethical guidelines for social media. The introduction provides, in relevant part, “Social media networks such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook are becoming indispensable tools used by legal professionals and those with whom they communicate.” The guideline itself, entitled “Attorneys’ Social Media Competence” provides, “A lawyer has a duty to understand the benefits and risks and ethical implications associated with social media, including its use as a mode of communication, an advertising tool, and a means to research and investigate matters.” The guidelines further provide that, “A lawyer cannot be competent absent a working knowledge of the benefits and risks associated with the use of social media.”
Now, let’s return to Jane. In light of the fact that Jane has no internet presence whatsoever (to the point her phone number is not even readily located) the logical conclusion is that she is a “Luddite Lawyer” and one who proudly proclaims “I don’t care what someone finds when they Google me. I don’t need a website or to be on social media, whatever that is.” In light of the N.Y. (and other) State Bar rules on attorney competence and social media, while Jane may be abundantly qualified to handle your small business matter, she may also be considered ethically incompetent for her failure to understand and engage in social media.
How does one avoid Jane’s oxymoronic situation? (A qualified incompetent.) For those attorneys who have been practicing law for twenty or more years, there was no internet to speak of when our careers began. We built our reputation by practicing good law and developing relationships within our legal community. After all of that hard work, you want to make sure your online reputation is the same as your “offline” reputation. While you think you have a good reputation (like Jane probably does), in 2015, your reputation lives online.
Like it or not, the internet and social media have become the primary way how people search for an attorney. First impressions are made online, not on your past courtroom history or the ties you have developed over the years in the legal community. What people first read about you is their first impression of you, which has a significant impact on their ultimate perception of your reputation. However, it is more than just public perception. An attorney’s ability to understand and engage in social media now has an impact on their overall competence, as a result of changes by the State Bar in a growing number of states.
Spend the money to get a domain name; build a website; take control of your social media profiles. Write articles about your expertise. Google yourself regularly. If you don’t have the time to do all of this, hire someone who will do it for you. Ignoring the internet in your legal career only hurts your own reputation (and ultimately, your firm’s bottom line). Simply put, your reputation is riding on it.
 At least fourteen states have adopted similar guidelines, along with the Federal Rules.