Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.
These immortal words today carry special meaning for attorneys, no thanks to the recent launch of LawyerRatingz.com, a web site that allows visitors to anonymously (and seemingly indiscriminately) rate and post comments about attorneys.
The web site will undoubtedly leave most lawyers, as it did me, with a nasty taste in their mouths. On the home page a photo depicts three attorneys, all middle-aged white guys in suits, who smirk knowingly into the camera. In the web site’s forum, someone gloats, “For the first time in history, crummy lawyers are going to be held accountable for their misdeeds! I hope you can keep them from closing this site!” (Posted by a sadly misinformed soul who has evidently never heard of disbarment proceedings.)
Meanwhile, the cover of anonymity which the web site gives visitors has resulted in some cases in comments which border on the libelous. Dip in anywhere at random and click on the names of lawyers who have received negative ratings to see what I mean.
Since the raters do not identify themselves, attorneys have no way to shield themselves from or refute false accusations of unethical or illegal conduct. The ratings are there for all the world to see (and search engines to find). Gladys McKie, a lecturer at the Northeastern University School of Journalism, points out in an article in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly today (sorry, no free online version available) that “anyone can rate a lawyer regardless of whether the rater was a client or not. The rater could be a colleague who has an axe to grind, a neighbor who thinks you’re too noisy, or a friend of a disgruntled client.” Exactly.
What is unfortunate, too, is that while a forum like this may have limited usefulness for allowing dissatisfied clients to let off some steam, it does nothing constructive to address genuine issues that can and do arise between attorneys and their clients. Nor does the web site offer links to bar associations and boards of bar overseers where clients may far more productively address concerns about an attorney’s professionalism.
ADR professionals should take note of this as well. Although LawyerRatingz.com lists only 1,151 attorneys as of today, it is entirely possible that mediators and arbitrators may be counted among them. And, as ADR gains in popularity and public acceptance, it’s only a matter of time before someone thinks to launch MediatorRatingz.com–unless someone has gotten there already.