Small Law Firms, Technology

The Practice: Reputation Management (Two Words, Two Meanings)

“We’re dinosaurs, Brian,” said the 12-year lawyer in my office last week.

We were discussing the way we get cases as opposed to the way “they do it today.”

I never thought I would be called a dinosaur at 43, after 17 years in practice, but the tech hacks and non-practicing lawyers who claim to know how to build successful practices have tagged me one. They say I’m a “dying breed,” and that “lawyers like me” will be extinct very very very very soon. I try to pay attention to them, as those who have failed at law, or have never run a law practice but can predict the future of the profession with a keyboard from their kitchen table in some crap town are always worthy of my time. Unfortunately, I am usually interrupted by yet another new client calling my office.

So my colleague, the 12-year lawyer, says we’re dinosaurs. Neither of us pays an internet marketer, or buy lists of prospective “leads” to contact. Our way of getting cases isn’t as interesting. It’s usually: “Remember that guy I represented seven years ago on that thing? The referral came from him,” or, “Remember that lawyer we had that case against who we hated? He referred the client.” Our way took a while, but it was worth the long while.

Ask some “old” curmudgeon lawyer like me what “reputation management” is, and I will tell you it’s managing your reputation. It’s conducting yourself in a way that won’t cause you to have a “bad reputation,” or a “questionable reputation.” It’s about showing up to places on time, not chronically canceling, being honest, not looking like a slob, not filing documents that are nonsensical or full of typos, being professional with opposing counsel, being a zealous advocate in front of judges trying to silence you, and being asked to speak, write, and give opinions on important issues. That’s reputation management….

But not if you’re an internet baby. To you, reputation management is one of the many services offered by internet marketing companies. You don’t need to manage your reputation, because you have none. You simply have a reputation on the internet. You’re nothing off-line. No one who matters in the profession has even heard of you. If someone says something bad about you on the internet, you’re bad — because no one off the internet has anything good, or anything at all to say about you. But as long as someone can Google you and read fake nice things about you, the clients will call, and you will get the cash. No need to have any sort of “off-line” reputation. Who cares about that these days anyway? You’re not looking for colleagues to refer you business, you’re not looking for that call where the prospective client says, “I got your name from two different people.” You’re too busy asking for endorsements on LinkedIn and asking people to “like” your law firm on Facebook. So to you, “reputation management” is controlling the bad things said about you on the internet — even if they’re true.

“Fake it ‘til you make it” is no longer a punch line, it’s a motto.

When I went in to private practice back in the ice age — 1997 — I sent letters, letters that I wrote, to everyone I knew. Former clients from my PD days, court reporters, everyone for whom I had an address. I sent them, in the mail. Today, we just set up online accounts, seek followers, friends, blast out “if you’re having trouble reading this” emails, and hire someone to “boost” our “numbers.” Sincere, personal letters take a few days; faking it online takes a half hour in mom’s basement. When I tell young lawyers to write letters, it’s like I’m telling them to buy an eight-track player.

And yes, I know the reputation management people are reading this and getting ready to email me to tell me there really exists a need for them because of “Google bombs” (targeted attacks against a person or company, many times with false accusations), but I’m not talking about that, so go open another bag of Cheetos and keep working on your SEO.

“Reputation management” is a dividing line between dinosaurs like me, and those that have been convinced that their reputation is nothing more than words on a computer screen. If managing your reputation is limited to paying someone to make sure nothing negative is readily available on the internet, then you will never have to worry about extinction, because in order to become extinct, you have to have existed.

Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at

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