Unfortunately, Reviews on Yelp Cannot Be Relied Upon for Vetting Purposes

I would be highly suspect in relying upon Yelp reviews in the future. I wish this were not true because it just makes it that much more difficult and confusing for customers to locate "real evidence" that is so essential to properly vet products and services.
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In my article titled "Select the Mediator Carefully," among other things, I said, "In order to select a mediator who is able to satisfy your needs, you must do so based upon 'real evidence' and this is where client testimonials are of utmost importance." This statement is not limited to mediators - it applies equally well to all products and service providers. Unfortunately, it is far from easy to locate such "real evidence," as Yelp has so clearly demonstrated.

The following description of Yelp was taken directly from its website: "Yelp uses automated software to recommend the most helpful and reliable reviews for the Yelp community among the millions we get. The software looks at dozens of different signals, including various measures of quality, reliability, and activity on Yelp. The process has nothing to do with whether a business advertises on Yelp or not."

In an effort to demonstrate that Yelp's description is far from accurate, I will begin by using my own personal experiences and then discuss the recent court decision that sheds light on the dismal truth.

On July 4, 2013, Yelp notified me that my office had received its first review, which was from a Darrin L. The exact review was as follows: "This guy took the defendents attorney behind closed doors with the judge and made a deal that cost me more than it should have and i have been stuck with that deal for years. I pay more than I should have and he did all of this without my consent. He is a sub par attorney at best. Good luck with your case. I am broke." In addition to that lousy review, Darrin gave me 1 out of 5 possible stars. Since I was born on July 4th, all I can say is that this review really put a damper on my birthday. In any event, the information contained in the review itself is inconsistent with the way in which the legal system works and therefore could not possibly have occurred.

First of all, in California, there are no plaintiffs and defendants in family law. In fact, in the chapter I authored for "Inside the Minds: Strategies for Family Law in California, 2013 ed.", published by Thomson Reuters, I stated the following: "In an effort to make it appear as though family law litigation is not a lawsuit, the parties are referred to as petitioner and respondent, rather than plaintiff and defendant." Coincidentally, that book was published on July 1, 2013, only 3 days before Darrin's review.

Second, what Darrin has described is what is known as a "chambers conference." In his article titled "What Goes on in a Judge's Chambers Conference," Scott B. Piekarsky explained why Darrin's review makes no sense. As Mr. Piekarsky explains, "this forum [a chamber's conference] is essential to the proper running of the system. It is neither efficient, proper or productive to have these discussions in open court.... A truly off the record discussion can happen in chambers.... In addition, settlement discussions and negotiations must be done in private caucuses -- there is no other way for the mediator or judge to properly confer." In fact, Mr. Piekarsky likened it "to a mediation where everyone is supposed to let their hair down and really dig in." Chambers conferences occur just before the matter is called to be heard in open court. Depending upon the circumstances, it can be extremely helpful for settlement purposes to learn how the judge is inclined to rule on a case before they actually make a ruling. While it is true that the judge's comments in chambers do not guarantee how they will rule if the matter is heard in court, gaining such insight directly from the horse's mouth is invaluable. The judge is not making any orders in the chambers conference. Furthermore, no deals that require a client's consent are reached.

It is therefore impossible for me to have taken the opposing party's "attorney behind closed doors with the judge and made a deal." In his review, Darrin also stated, "I pay more than I should have and he did all of this without my consent." That is impossible because the information gleaned from such a conference would only have been useful in pre-hearing settlement efforts. In other words, Darrin had to have signed off on a settlement agreement with the opposing party or the court would have made an order in open court after actually hearing the matter. Darrin would not have agreed to pay more than we suspected the judge would order on the bench, based upon the information conveyed in the chambers conference. If that's the case, how could the agreement have cost him "more than it should have?"

Third, immediately after reading the review, I looked through my records to see if I ever represented anyone named Darrin and whose last name began with an L. It turns out that I never represented anyone by that name.

Sadly, there are plenty of reasons why someone would provide a false review with regard to a particular product or service provider. One such explanation is that the review was given by the opposing party on a case that I handled. Another possible explanation is that the review was written by a competitor of mine. Moreover, it could have been written by someone who disagrees with my point of view, as conveyed in the articles that I write. Regardless, after receiving Darrin's review, I explained all of this in an email I sent to Yelp and the review was never removed.

Meanwhile, I was recently retained by a client who resides in Colorado, to represent her in a family law matter in California. Lawyers represent clients who reside in other states all the time, when the matter is subject to jurisdiction in the state in which the lawyer is located. After completing her project, the client submitted the following review on Yelp: "Mark did an excellent job on my case. He drafted my spousal support paperwork and got it processed through the court system and employer quickly and efficiently. I was apprehensive about contracting services from an attorney long distance, from another state, but he kept in touch, responded promptly and completed the task for the price agreed upon. I would certainly use his services for any future legal issues and would recommend his practice." That client also gave me 5 out of 5 possible stars.

Due to Darrin's review, my office has a 4 star rating on Yelp, even though I have received a 5 star rating from everyone else who has reviewed my office on that site. My Colorado client's review actually raised my Yelp rating to 4 ½ stars, but that was before Yelp removed the rating because it is "not currently recommended." I am afraid that as of now, my office once again has a 4 star rating on Yelp.

Considering how Yelp has handled the reviews pertaining to my office, it most certainly does not "recommend the most helpful and reliable reviews for the Yelp community." In fact, my experiences have been quite the contrary. In and of itself, this would be bad enough when it comes to relying on Yelp reviews as "real evidence," but it only gets worse.

On September 2, 2014, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that even if Yelp removes "positive reviews or writes negative reviews to pressure the companies to pay for advertising, [that is] at most, hard bargaining" and therefore perfectly legal.

Taking all of this into consideration, I would be highly suspect in relying upon Yelp reviews in the future. I wish this were not true because it just makes it that much more difficult and confusing for customers to locate "real evidence" that is so essential to properly vet products and services.

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