New Zealand Law Society - Reputation critical to professional success

Reputation critical to professional success

What value is a great reputation?

Ask Grant Dalton. Referring to the recent furore over a possible fraud on Team New Zealand he described it as “intentional reputational damage 101” and decried the negative impact on the team. The distraction of having to focus on minimising reputational harm rather than the upcoming event is unwanted, but the damage has to be minimised for future progress. So, if reputation is important to a sports team, it is even more important when your livelihood and career depend on it.

Have you ever met a lawyer who didn’t claim to have a good reputation?

Therein lies the rub. If every lawyer has a good reputation how does a lay person distinguish one from another?

The general public doesn’t buy into the “all lawyers are good” myth. Everyone knows there are good lawyers, great lawyers, a whole host in between and finally, absolutely useless lawyers. Avoiding that last category is a must for the searcher online. How do they make that decision?

The key lies in four factors, identified by Rachel Botsman of Oxford University, that go into determining if anyone is trustworthy. These are competence, reliability, empathy and integrity.

If the answer to all those determinants is yes, then chances are you have actually earned, do actually have a great reputation, and have a good chance of securing that online visitor as a client.

So, what do people see when they check your website? If it’s full of material such as “client focused, approachable, friendly, cost effective, enjoys gardening, local, leading law firm, and the like” then the 30 seconds or less that you have to get the attention of that visitor is wasted.

Those visitors are precious and need a reason to stay and check you out. Most visitors to legal websites bounce. The average bounce rate is in the high 80% range, particularly via AdWords. Of those who stay, the time on site is measured in seconds.

Assuming Rachel Botsman is correct when she says “trust is the currency of interactions in the same way that money is the currency of transactions” then demonstrating you are trustworthy in those few vital seconds is critical.

Drawing on Ms Botsman’s work in this area she identifies three differing markets.

The original was by and large village based. Everyone – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker – all relied on word of mouth. Lawyers are familiar with that as it is the default position in the profession.

The second reputation market developed in the 18th century as institutions such as banks, insurance companies and modern corporates developed. Of necessity these large entities had to be trustworthy and had to demonstrate it. This still applies and is the driving force behind corporates marketing perpetually. The marketing style, though, has changed and is moving into ethical marketing. The recent decision of Coca Cola, Honda, Starbucks and others, New Zealand’s “Stuff” for instance, to withdraw from marketing on Facebook is an example. Facebook is facing a crisis as it is perceived at present to lack integrity, hence its reputation is at risk.

The third reputation market is in the digital environment and is identified as distributed trust marketing. This is where the world is moving.

Who doesn’t check out the seller (and the buyer) on Trade Me, Airbnb, the movie, the new car – in fact absolutely everything – by looking online for the comments and experiences of previous users, viewers and consumers. Those searches are looking to move the searcher from observer to participant, from the unknown to the known.

For people searching for a lawyer online, the lawyer is an unknown quantity.

In similar fashion lawyers, courtesy of AML/CFT, now treat clients as unknown quantities. That has been embarrassing in some cases when dealing with established clients but valuable when assessing new clients. Many of those new clients will be, to a certain extent, virtual clients – met online, dealt with online and never physically in the office. In the village market that client would be personally known, perhaps “a pillar of society or a rat bag”, whereas the online client can be anyone anywhere and “anything”.

The “local trust” market still exists, as does the institutional market, but both are being left in the wake of the distributed trust market.

Coming out of the internet it is new on the block but its impact is extensive and effective.

An American commentator, Brian Koslow, observes: “There is no advertisement as powerful as a positive reputation travelling fast”. It is harder to think of anything moving faster than the internet. If that is a reasonable statement, then the need for lawyers to adapt and adopt new strategies to establish and verify a reputation online is immediate and urgent.

That reputation can’t be claimed as of right but has to be earned. Simply claiming a supposed status doesn’t cut the mustard, as evidenced by recently struck off lawyer, Arlan Arman, who promoted himself as “one of the best in Auckland”. He clearly was not, given he was found to be incompetent.

Reputation allows someone to assess the level of risk in engaging with an unknown. How is that risk measured? By the opinions of those that have experienced the service.

It is in those opinions that the four factors going into the decision of trustworthiness and hence reputation will be found and assessed.

The first two elements, competency and reliability, will typically be satisfied relatively readily, particularly for transactional matters such as conveyancing.

The last two elements, empathy and integrity, are more critical as far as clients are concerned. These elements cannot be determined by anyone other than the people impacted by the behaviour or conduct that goes into making such a judgement. These factors will be identified in basic terms using colloquial and colourful language.

It is the uniqueness of the individual responses that gives those observations their credibility. Self-praise is faint praise and not a means to move that potential client online from perceiving you as an unknown quantity to a known.

That is the essential part of the exercise in creating your reputation and using it to grow your business. Anything you proclaim about yourself will be met with cynicism whereas the opinion of many others (many others) will be influential in getting that engagement (instructions) from the online market, the modern vast village.

So why should lawyers bother about managing and promoting their reputation?

Mainly because it is their most valuable yet under used asset.

From the moment a person first has any contact with a lawyer, that lawyers’ reputation is on the line. Whether it is the reception area, the décor of the office, the website, the signage outside, all and every facet of your physical presentation contributes to the impression created and either adds to or detracts from your reputation. Add to that the numerous other variables such as how you interact with clients, the quality of advice provided and the little things like offering comfort to clients in stressful circumstances, respecting their opinions, and a myriad of other aspects.

The underlying feature is that managing your reputation is dynamic not static – the last client’s opinion counts in gaining the next new client.

In researching law firms online in particular, the writer found the presentation is generally generic and static. Some of it is deplorable, featuring deceased partners, closed offices, wrong contact details, warnings not to trust the site, lengthy monologues and more. The impression, and hence reputation, is not enhanced with such material and the likelihood of gaining traction with that online searcher in the few seconds available is negligible. It screams out “near enough is good enough” which isn’t going to satisfy those four trust elements that go into making your reputation a positive one.

Tending to your reputation is even more critical with the rapid introduction of Artificial Intelligence to law.

Just as clients came to assume you had a photocopier, then a fax, then the internet, those same clients will soon assume you have AI capability. When AI is prevalent in every office the firms’ reputation will count even more as a distinguishing factor. Whether it relates to a transactional file such as conveyancing, or litigation, the client will be sourcing the best lawyer they can find based on the experiences of others, as disclosed on the internet.

Your reputation has always been critical to your financial and professional success. Taking it for granted, and figuratively hiding your reputation under a bushel, is doing yourself no favours. It needs to be nurtured, developed and promoted as the valuable yet fragile asset you create and control. To finish, consider this quote from Sir Richard Branson – “All you have in business is your reputation”.

Dennis Gates has been a lawyer for more than 30 years as well as a notary public. He has established Real Law, a specialised marketing company focusing on the needs of small to medium sized law firms.

Lawyer Listing for Bots