The most effective tool is for lawyers to establish their online reputations before they are attacked. Some law firms, for instance, pre-emptively buy 3,000 domain names to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. They also operates 100 Web sites and a dozen or so blogs, and participates in social networking sites.
However, 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.
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," experts say. "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. 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.