Three Reasons Not To Trust Personal Reviews

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You’ve found the perfect blackout curtains on Amazon, recommended specifically for overworked and late-sleeping New York associates, vampires, and Alaskans. They’re inexpensive and ship via Prime, but then you notice a wisp of yellow out of the corner of your eye that spells doom for your purchase: 3.5 stars. You click out of the product and start the cycle anew, maybe using the star filter this time. As technology has burgeoned over the last 20 years, anonymous or unknown reviewers have become more and more relied upon to shape our judgment in all aspects of our life. The idea of rating something is nothing new, but the proliferation of technology has allowed it to spread to even the most niche sectors. Law firms are one of the industries impacted by this rise in technology. Various sites and forums are devoted to the very task or rating firms. Why might this be problematic?

1) The Raters Are Overrated. We tend to be poor judges of our experiences, especially if we have limited context or reference points. What we may see as unreasonable, may be the norm for all employers in the industry — or vice versa. Regardless, we are prone to black and white thinking. Distributions of reviews tends towards bimodal distributions of reviews at one-star and five-star reviews. Furthermore, interpersonal factors have the largest correlation between good and bad reviews. One explanation for this is that overwhelming positive or negative experiences motivate us to actually review a product or company. Research shows that the more someone reviews, the more evenly distributed their reviews tend to be. When it comes to law firms, most reviewers have only practiced at a few firms and have limited comparison points.

Moreover, what exactly are we rating? The discrete parts that make up an overall review may be composed of completely different categories based on who you ask and are more a reflection on their values. If you value work-life balance, you may give a sweltering New York litigation powerhouse a one-star review based on your unhappiness with firm’s encroachment into your personal life. Others who thrive in pressure cookers might find the firm perfectly aligns with their preferences. If we look even more granularly, we see another reason why current and former employees make for unreliable reviewers.

2) A Rose Is Not A Rose Is Not A Rose. Overall firm reviews reside in a vacuum, stripped from the individual components that are summed to generate that rating. The problem with this is that firms vary wildly from office to office, and from practice to practice. The experience of working as an associate at one firm in New York could be diametrically different to the experience of working in their San Francisco office. Even going up one floor in the same office, you may find the real estate practice to have a completely different atmosphere compared to your corporate practice. The experience is somewhat akin to college, where your grade and interest in your class largely depends on the professor teaching. Ultimately, the firm decides who to hire and sets the tone for corporate culture. As firms expand, this becomes harder to instill and police and sometimes incongruent attorneys slip in through the cracks — or the prospective bottom-line boost is enough to discount or ignore red flags. I cannot recount how many times I’ve heard: “The firm would be perfect, if only I didn’t have to work for this partner.” However, basing a lateral decision on firm personnel can lead to another complication.

3) As Constant As A Northern Star. It will come as no shock to you, that attorneys like to move around firms. The constant churn muddies the waters and can make it difficult to get an accurate read on a firm. The friend who told you not to move to her former firm because of the cantankerous rainmaker who made her life hell may be surprised to find out that the rainmaker is now on a permanent golf tour across the world. Associates tend to lateral every three years on average, while partners tend to stay a little bit longer, hanging on for five years. Since the composition of firms is changing so often, there are really only a few sources of information that can give you an unbiased and accurate view of the current market.

If you haven’t guessed it already, one is legal recruiters. We talk to thousands of people every year from attorneys to firm chairs, and have our finger constantly on the pulse of the market so that we can guide our candidates to the firm that makes aligns with all of their personal and professional needs. Using a source like Vault or the U.S. News and World Report can be tricky when assessing a prospective employer. For other industries, the resources available and corporate culture largely dictate your experience in the company. However, because law firms are more decentralized and have access to largely the same resources, your local practice bubble will largely dictate whether you have a positive or negative experience. Rather than relying on outdated information, feel free to contact me or my fellow colleagues at Lateral Link if you are interested in making a lateral move, armed with up to date and accurate information. Feel free to rate your current firm below and we’ll post the results next week and break down our observations.

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