Imagine you have just discovered that a former client with past-due legal fees has posted an inaccurate and negative review of your firm on a popular social media site. They tagged your business page in the post and people are commenting and sharing the post. What should you do?
Many people’s first instinct is to act to defend themselves from these online mischaracterizations. Yet for lawyers, the answer isn’t so simple. Handling a negative online review of yourself or your firm the wrong way comes with considerable risks, including:
- Further damage to your reputation.
- Possible ethics violations.
- Increased negative publicity.
- Potential loss of business and risk to business viability.
While you may wish to respond immediately and set the record straight, your professional code of ethics and high standards of conduct requirements dictate that you must proceed with caution.
Four Approaches to Avoid when Handling a Negative Review
While there are many ways one could handle a negative review, certain approaches are more risky for lawyers. If you are faced with a negative review, avoid the following:
Initiating Direct Contact
If the negative review comes from a former client, you will likely have information readily at hand to make direct contact. At first, this may seem like a good idea, but emotions on both sides will be heightened. A lawyer may feel embarrassed by the negative publicity and angry at the perceived inaccuracy of the review, while the former client may be too emotional to listen to reason. This could make it difficult to have a conversation, much less reach an agreeable resolution.
Drafting a Casual Response
A lawyer may next think to make a quick public refutation of the negative reviewer’s false assertions. However, this is also risky for you and your firm. Disclosing a lawyer’s version of the facts or hinting at a client’s past that was learned during representation is not only unprofessional, it may also be in violation of ethics rules.
Even in the case of a negative review, a lawyer has a duty of confidentiality to both current and former clients. ABA Model Rule 1.6 advises that a lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client without the client’s informed consent.1 While this rule contains a self-defense exception which allows disclosure of otherwise confidential information, past ethics committee opinions have agreed that online reviews do not trigger this exception to a lawyer’s confidentiality obligations.2
Suing for Defamation
Another course of action that may come to your mind is to sue for defamation. This may seem like a logical step if you believe the negative review is false and has damaged the reputation of you or the firm. However, this also may not be the best course of action. While defamation is governed by state law, it generally requires a false statement. Yet as scathing as many online reviews can be, they are usually expressed as opinions and not as statements of fact.
Requesting a Takedown
Finally, a lawyer could also request a takedown of a false or defamatory review from the website in question. Most websites today engage in at least some moderation of user content. However, this course of action is also not without risk for you and your firm. Attempting to remove information posted to the internet can often draw further attention to it.3 Even if it is removed, a summary or screenshot of the offending post could end up circulating the negative information to an even wider audience.
Three Factors to Consider in Your Response to a Negative Review
It is important to manage the risk to your firm’s business and reputation by handling a negative review as calmly and professionally as possible. Consider these factors:
Analyze the objective merits of the reviewer’s post. Many people today are savvy internet users, meaning that a third-party may not pay much attention to a review that includes spelling or grammar mistakes, irrational pronouncements or implausible assertions. To an objective reader, such negative reviews may simply be dismissed as false.
Remember that your response to the offending review may draw more attention than the review itself. Ensure that you are calm and prepared to draft a response that will not only be visible to the reviewer, but to others, including potential future clients.
If you do decide a response is necessary, ensure your response is accurate, truthful and does not reveal any information relating to the representation of the client. The Pennsylvania Bar Ethics Committee has suggested a generic response such as the following:
“A lawyer’s duty to keep client confidences has few exceptions and in an abundance of caution I do not feel at liberty to respond in a point-by-point fashion in this forum. Suffice it to say that I do not believe that the post presents a fair and accurate picture of the events.”4
While no one enjoys receiving a negative review, it can help to see it as an opportunity to demonstrate the professionalism and integrity of yourself and your firm. How you handle a negative review can speak volumes to colleagues, current clients and potential future clients. Often the best course of action is to take the high road and act with respect and civility.
Information provided by Attorney Protective is not intended as legal advice. This publication provides best practices for use in connection with general circumstances, and ordinarily does not address specific situations. These best practices are not intended to meet or establish the standard of care, and sometimes recommend practices that exceed the standard of care. Specific situations should be discussed with legal counsel licensed in the appropriate jurisdiction. By publishing practice and risk prevention tips, Attorney Protective neither implies nor provides any guarantee that claims can be prevented by use of the suggested practices. Though the contents of Attorney Protective’s Best Practice Database have been carefully researched, Attorney Protective makes no warranty as to the accuracy, applicability or timeliness of the content. Anyone wishing to reproduce any part of the Attorney Protective Best Practices Database content must request permission from Attorney Protective by calling 877-728-8776 or sending an email to email@example.com. Additionally the rules cited in the contents of this article may have since changed. You should check the laws and model rules in your state for specific information on the topics addressed here.
- American Bar Association Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6.
- New York State Bar Association Opinion 1032 (2014); Pennsylvania Bar Association Opinion 2014-200; Texas Center for Legal Ethics Opinion 662; Bar Association of San Francisco Opinion 2014-1; Los Angeles County Ethics Committee in Opinion 525 (2012).
- In internet parlance, this phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the Streisand Effect, named for the famous singer whose 2003 privacy lawsuit over an obscure photograph of her Malibu home resulted in the offending photograph being published in major newspapers around the world alongside news coverage describing the lawsuit.
- Pennsylvania Bar Association Opinion 2014-200.