Negative online reviews can hurt businesses and law firms are no exception. But other types of businesses don’t have to be concerned about confidentiality and attorney-client privilege if they choose to respond to a negative review. Here are some suggestions for lawyers on dealing with negative online reviews.
The American Bar Association released Formal Opinion 496, titled Responding to Online Criticism on January 13, 2021. You can download the opinion here. If you have an interest in the opinion, I encourage you to download and save it, as these opinions are available for free download for a limited time.
The most important ethical takeaway is that an online post is not proceeding within the meaning of the Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.6 (b)(5) which permits a lawyer to reveal client confidences to the extent a lawyer reasonably believes that it is necessary “to respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client.” So, if an attorney chooses to respond to an online post, the attorney cannot reveal client information or in any way compromise the lawyer’s duty to the client.
While Formal Opinion 496 is well-reasoned and provides sound advice, some of the intended practical advice seems a bit dated. In particular, I don’t care for this sentence: “As a best practice, lawyers should consider not responding to a negative post or review, because doing so may draw more attention to it and invite further response from an already unhappy critic.”
While not responding could be the best strategy, I would say that in 2021, it is hardly a “best practice.”
I believe the best practice is to reach out to the client or former by telephone or email to privately discuss their criticisms. Sometimes the lawyer may know this will be fruitless or even aggravate the situation. But there are times a positive approach and listening to the client’s concerns can even result in the client removing the post voluntarily. The lawyer who was completely surprised and blindsided by the post should recognize that such surprise at least suggests that something could have been lacking in service delivery or communication with the client. So, keep an open mind when you reach out to the client.
I also note there is a slight chance the client did not write the post. In a martial dissolution case, a family member who disagreed with the settlement you negotiated may have posted something negative using the client’s name. If the client is willing to cooperate with you and provide a notarized statement to Google or another review site, that they were the lawyer’s client, but they didn’t write this review, there is a good chance of getting it removed. On the other hand, no legitimate review hosting site is going to remove a review just because it is negative, you don’t like it or you claim it is incorrect. That conflicts with the site’s business model. Lawyers, as noted, don’t have the freedom to respond to an incorrect negative review as easily and directly as a restaurant.
While not responding is one option, a negative review on a law firm’s Google My Business page or a well-trafficked site like Yelp is damaging and a business not responding can seem like an admission. If you are unable to contact the former client privately, then a response that the firm tries to serve all its clients well and inviting the former client to contact the firm privately to discuss the matter is often appropriate. As Formal Opinion 496 notes, a response that “Professional considerations preclude a response.” is another option.
Getting a negative review removed is usually challenging. But if they say they were a client and you will attest you never had a client with that name or haven’t handled those types of matters in years, you can try with Google My Business Customer Support or the support for another review site. If you can show similar negative posts on other lawyers’ sites, that could be helpful.
If a lawyer cannot get a negative review removed, then they may decide to solicit some positive reviews from satisfied clients. But don’t promise them something of value for the positive review. That can backfire. Like it or not, reviews, both positive and negative, carry a great deal of weight online. It is a part of today’s online business environment.