Michael T. Pines made headlines by advising clients to break into their foreclosed homes. Then, after the San Diego-area attorney was arrested last February for trespassing, the State Bar of California placed his license on inactive status.
Personal injury attorney Michael Pines of the Law Offices of Michael Pines doesn’t have the middle initial “T” in his name. And he’s in San Diego, not Encinitas, Calif., where Michael T. Pines had been operating as Pines & Associates.
Internet news articles about the first Pines failed to note the distinction. “I had clients who called me and said, ‘I saw you in the news. Are you the guy that’s in jail?’ ” said the San Diego-based Pines. No, he explained; in fact, he’d never even met the guy.
Such is the world of the Internet, where a lawyer’s reputation can change in an instant. For some attorneys, controlling their online reputations is a simple matter of managing what gets out. They might hire one of the consulting firms that have popped up as part of the booming “reputation management” business. Alternatively, they might build their Internet profiles by posting more online articles and blogs on their own.
Others face defamatory attacks, often by ex-clients or ex-spouses. They might send cease-and-desist letters or, in some cases, file lawsuits. So far, their success rate is a matter of debate — particularly between attorneys and management consultants.
“Lawyers understand that this is an important topic,” said Michael Fertik, chief executive officer of Reputation.com, which manages online reputations for professionals including attorneys. “Their names are closely associated with their professional success. People who are antagonists often target law firms or lawyers, and lawyers are closely identified by their names.”
For Michael Pines, the trouble stemmed from a case of mistaken identity. Other lawyers suffer much worse.
“A lot of the stuff we see is not, ‘This attorney didn’t do that great of a job.’ It is, ‘This attorney totally screwed up this case, or this attorney is on drugs or criminal.’ It’s bad stuff,” said Bruce Anderson, chief executive officer of Cyber Investigation Services LLC in Tampa, Fla., which he co-founded two years ago. “It just gets nasty.”
Anderson, who holds a doctorate in engineering, said his company fields 300 calls a month, many from attorneys. Most of the objectionable posts come from what he calls the “ex business” — ex-partners, ex-employees, ex-clients, ex-wives and ex-husbands. He worked with one attorney whose former spouse posted accusations of criminal activity, drug use and pedophilia, he said.
Other posts appear on professional review sites, including Google Reviews, Ripoff Report, complaintsboard.com and Yelp, or on forums or blogs. Most of the attorneys Anderson hears from call on behalf of their clients, but a “reasonable number” of lawyers call because they’ve been attacked themselves. Often, attorneys don’t know how to track down the individuals, even if they have a good idea of the perpetrator’s identity, he said.
“All this stuff is done anonymously. Literally, you can count on one hand the number of attorneys across the country who understand how to deal with it,” Anderson said. “It’s one thing if somebody’s getting defamed in a newspaper. A lot of attorneys know how to deal with that. But what most attorneys don’t know how to deal with is somebody putting up negative reviews on Google. How do you prove who that is?”
For between $1,000 and $5,000, Cyber Investigation searches for the perpetrator’s IP address — his digital identity — and works with attorneys who draft pleadings and subpoenas to file what often are referred to as “John Doe” complaints. In many cases, they’re able to obtain a court order to remove the material, he said.
“There’s a common perception out in the legal world that these things aren’t very successful,” he said. “If these cases are screened carefully, they’re highly successful — they almost always result in identifying the individual. About 90% of the time, once the individual is named, then they’re just shocked. And so a lot of times these things get settled fairly quickly.”
John Dozier Jr. of Dozier Internet Law P.C. in Richmond, Va., offered a more pessimistic view than did his consultant counterparts. Dozier, author of Google Bomb, a book about online defamation, said the legal issues are much more complicated than most attorneys anticipate.
“It’s very, very complex — 99 percent of the attorneys are clueless,” he said. “You get into constitutional law issues off the bat, free speech. There are specialized statutes that apply that lawyers never heard of before that have a significant impact on how they might or might not be successful in attacking the problem.”
Many attorneys go after the Web host, insisting that the author of a post is violating its contract terms by publishing defamatory and false information. But those posters can always move to another site, Dozier said. Cease-and-desist letters work about 10 percent of the time, he said. And a small number of attorneys file lawsuits.
But that approach risks the “Streisand effect,” Dozier said, referring to Barbra Streisand’s attempt in 2003 to suppress photographs of her home; the move generated even greater publicity for the images. “If you push hard enough, they’ll come back at you and there will be 100 Web sites that pick up on the article,” he said.
And then there are the First Amend­ment and consumer-rights considerations. “You can’t fault a lawyer or other professional for caring about their reputation and trying to maintain it,” said Paul Alan Levy, a lawyer and founder of the Internet Free Speech project at Public Citizen in Washington. “What I worry about with some of the responses that we see is, on the one hand, they may well be suppressing true information. Or they may be promoting false positive information. Both ways, it could in theory raise legal questions.”
Consumers with legitimate gripes have an arsenal of legal weapons including the First Amendment, articles and false-advertising claims, he said. But they often lack the same resources as a lawyer.
“It’s hard to fight a lawyer when you’re an individual, because the lawyer’s got free legal help, and you don’t,” he said. “So you often see people giving up — regardless of what they said was true — just because they can’t afford to defend themselves. That obviously raises a consumer concern.”
The most effective tool is for lawyers to establish their online reputations before they are attacked, Dozier said. His law firm, for instance, pre-emptively bought 3,000 domain names to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. It also operates 100 Web sites and a dozen or so blogs, and participates in social networking sites. “All those give indexed results that are positive,” he said.
But he acknowledged that flooding the Internet with positive links doesn’t necessarily stop negative news from jumping to the top of search results. That’s where businesses focused on “reputation management” have cropped up. “There’s a whole industry out there — reputation management — that’s doing very, very well,” Dozier said.
One of them is Fertik’s Reputation.-com, a venture capital-backed startup in Redwood City, Calif. “The fact is that it’s taken a while for lawyers to get comfortable with the idea that they can do something about it,” he said. “The last 18 months or so, the adoption has been growing very fast. Lawyers are now comfortable with the idea of using the Internet as a reputation marketing or management for themselves.”
Some lawyers refer their clients, but more are looking for control over their own reputations.
The average lawyer pays the company $2,000 a year to attempt to influence the list of hits that come up when his or her name is punched into search engines, he said. Reputation.com uses algorithms to observe variables — such as the number of clicks on an item — that help it to change the order in which search results appear. For example, to push business listings, which have little marketing value, down the list of results.
For Reputation.com’s clients, the concerns rarely involve defamatory material, but rather marketing. For instance, lawyers often want a big case or transaction to appear at the top of a list of search results, or to highlight the law school they attended, where they clerked, journal articles they’ve written or speeches they’ve made, Fertik said.
Instead, he said, they often get the location of their office. “Left to its own devices, Google might say you have an office in New Jersey,” he said. “That’s not doing anything for you. An article that you won a case or that you were the promising lawyer of 2011 — that would be useful to have in the top search results.”
During a recent search for Michael Pines, Google listed the personal injury lawyer’s law firm Web site, http://seriousaccidents.com, as the top result. The second link was to a 2010 blog item by The Wall Street Journal about Michael T. Pines, the foreclosure attorney, whose bar license was suspended last month after he was convicted of second-degree burglary.
Michael Pines said he’s made some progress in clearing up the confusion that tainted his name on the Internet. He has posted information about himself and his firm on Facebook and LinkedIn. He also has been writing articles for a blog on his law firm’s Web site.
“So the good things we’re writing about will push the bad things down,” he said. “That’s a hope. That’s a wish. Whether or not that will happen or not, I don’t know.”
Amanda Bronstad can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.