The internet has changed how potential clients locate attorneys. They often begin searching for attorneys by Googling attorneys near them. They narrow their list by reading online reviews on social media sites, Yelp, Avvo, Google, and other online review sites.
Having a robust online presence can boost a lawyer’s business significantly. For the most part, online advertising is less expensive and more effective than many other forms of advertisement. However, how should attorneys ethically respond and deal with negative online reviews?
Negative Reviews Are Part of Doing Business
You will never please every client. There will always be some clients who feel that they did not receive the best legal services possible. They could have had unrealistic expectations, or they may have had a genuine complaint about the services they received.
In either case, attorneys must be cautious when responding to bad reviews from clients. Issues of legal ethics could come into play. An attorney could create serious problems if the response to a bad client review violates any rules of professional conduct or confidentiality rules.
Consider the Facts and Circumstances
Before jumping to the keyboard to respond to a negative review, do your due diligence to determine why the reviewer left a negative review.
First, verify that the reviewer was or is a client. If you did not represent the person, contact the review site. Some review sites remove reviews if the reviewer cannot verify their identity.
If the site refuses to remove the review, you may want to use a generic response asking the person to contact your office because you want to resolve the matter but do not have a record of the person as a client.
If the person is or was a client, it is time for reflection. Review the file and consider whether the client has a valid complaint. You may want to call the client to discuss the matter, but it might not be productive if the client is angry or the relationship ended poorly.
Review Your Practice’s Policies and Processes
The client might have a valid complaint about the services you or your staff provided. Review and evaluate the policies and processes related to the client’s case and the specific complaint contained in the review.
If you discover a problem, correct it immediately. You do not want to repeat the same mistake and risk having additional bad reviews from other clients.
Should I Respond to a Client’s Bad Review?
The American Bar Association recently released a formal opinion about responding to online criticism. Formal Opinion 496 was dated January 13, 2021. According to the opinion, the main concern related to responding to an online review would be maintaining the confidentiality of client information.
The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct 1.6 prohibits an attorney from disclosing any information related to representing a client without the client’s informed consent, except in a few narrow exceptions.
One exception would be establishing a claim or defense on behalf of the attorney in a controversy between the client and the attorney. The Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility concluded a negative online review is not a controversy within the meaning of the rule.
The Committee goes on to provide a detailed and comprehensive discussion of attorneys responding to online criticism and negative reviews. It determined that lawyers should consider ignoring the bad review. Responding to a bad review could draw more attention to the matter and invite additional negative responses from the reviewer.
It also stated that if an attorney does choose to respond to bad reviews online, the attorney must not disclose information that relates to a client matter or that could lead to the discovery of confidential information by another party.
Examining Other Opinions and Policies Regarding Ethical Responses to Negative Reviews
Attorneys should check with their local and state bar associations for opinions regarding the ethics of responding to reviews. Numerous bar associations throughout the country have issued opinions on the matter. Some opinions you may want to consider include:
Attorneys should also carefully review the Rules of Professional Conduct for their specific state. The rules may address when and how attorneys can respond to online reviews.
Final Thoughts About Ethical Responses to Bad Reviews
Negative reviews can hurt your business and your reputation. Most attorneys who have aggressive marketing strategies and a strong online presence may choose to respond to reviews. If so, they must ensure that their responses do not violate the rules of professional conduct or pertinent case law.
Any response that a lawyer posts to an online review should be measured, polite, and ethical. Never admit fault or apologize, but always offer a way to resolve the matter without giving any information that could be considered confidential or privileged.