WHEN ASKED the source of their new clients or business, most attorneys simply cite word of mouth or referrals, even in the Internet age. But to receive referrals, whether from other professionals or clients, an attorney must have an excellent reputation. Clients place trust in lawyers, revealing intimate details about their lives and businesses. Attorneys often hold their clients’ futures in their hands. If a client feels that his or her attorney didn’t have his or her best interests at heart, or that the attorney didn’t do a good job, that client likely will not refer colleagues or friends. Similarly, if a lawyer doesn’t impress colleagues, he or she won’t receive referrals from them. And any lawyer who leaves others with a poor impression is not likely to find it easy to land other jobs. In short, an attorney’s professional career rests upon his or her reputation.
Before the Internet, if a lawyer made a mistake or a client was dissatisfied, the client’s close friends and associates might find out about it. Word might even spread locally, potentially causing some damage to the attorney’s reputation. But with the proliferation of blogging, lawyer performance review websites and social media, a disgruntled client or angry colleague can do a lot more damage a lot faster—and spread it far more widely.
Whether lawyers blog or participate in social media themselves, they still need to be aware that others’ online activities may affect their reputations. They need to know how to respond if and when negative comments are made about them and how to counteract such negativity. Similarly, lawyers must monitor what marketers, search engine optimization consultants and others are doing online in their behalf. All information posted about you and your practice must be correct, and comments and links must be genuine and relevant.
ETHICAL ISSUES CAN ARISE
While attorneys have every right to defend themselves against online attacks, the constraints of the ethical rules apply even after the representation has ended. This may place lawyers in a difficult situation when a former client has posted something negative online in a very public space.
In September 2013, the ABA Journal ran a story by Debra Cassens Weiss, “Lawyer’s Response to Client’s Bad Avvo Review Leads to Disciplinary Complaint.” It discussed a Chicago employment lawyer accused of revealing confidential information about a former client in a response to a negative review on Avvo, a website that rates lawyers. And if the publicity about the case wasn’t bad enough, in January a follow-up article reported that the attorney was reprimanded as a result of her conduct.
You might think this is an isolated result. It isn’t. Earlier in 2013, an attorney in Georgia was disciplined after posting confidential information about a client in response to negative reviews posted about the attorney on consumer review websites.
STEPS TO AVOID TROUBLE
When faced with a negative online review, you naturally feel that you are being personally attacked—and wish to defend yourself. But lawyers need to use caution. Discussed below are some simple steps you can take to effectively manage your reputation online.
Monitor your own online presence. Begin by ensuring that the information you, your firm and anyone on your behalf posts about you online is professional, accurate, informative and up-to-date. Then monitor your name and your firm’s name online through Google Alerts and other services so that you are notified when your name or your firm’s name is mentioned online. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that if you have no online footprint, you won’t get negative reviews. There are plenty of online rating websites, including sites specifically for rating lawyers such as Avvo and LawyerRatingz, that allow consumers to rate attorneys, whether the attorneys participate or not. Monitor those websites and check periodically to ensure you don’t miss any potentially problematic reviews.
Don’t add credibility to negative reviews. If you do receive a negative review, stay calm. Don’t overreact, and don’t respond immediately. Resist the urge to tell your side of the story. Doing so got the Chicago lawyer, mentioned above, into trouble, at least in part. Often, telling your side of the story reveals some level of client confidentiality, which is strictly prohibited.
Responding substantively will likely do more harm than good. The more you protest, the more credibility you give to the comment, the more attention you bring to it and the more others reading the review and your response will think the client’s complaint has some merit. Don’t fall into this trap, especially when a review is written by an unrealistic or out-of-control client who exhibited irrational behavior during the representation. The client may see any substantive response as an invitation to “prove” that you performed badly in the matter.
Respond briefly, with concern. If the review is factually true or merely expresses an opinion, look at it as an opportunity. Remember that your response to any negative review is mostly for people who may come across the information in the future, when they are looking for a lawyer, and less for the person who posted the bad review. Perhaps the best approach is to respond with concern, assure the client that you’re investigating the matter and, if you were not previously aware of the problem or have not already addressed it with the client, ask the client to contact you directly so that you can resolve the issue. Or, if you know who the client is, contact him or her promptly—but don’t make assumptions. You may think you know which client wrote a given review, but often reviews are unsigned, so you need to be careful when resolving such issues.
Don’t ignore comments or respond negatively. You don’t want to ignore the comment in most cases. Failure to respond may further anger the client or give future website visitors the impression that the client’s dissatisfaction is justified or that you don’t care enough about your client’s concerns to address them. If you have already addressed the issue, a simple acknowledgment of the comment and an expression of regret that the client had a bad experience may be enough.
Under no circumstances should you bad-mouth the client. When you respond badly, you take the risk that your negative response will be shared or even “go viral,” thereby accomplishing the opposite of what you intended.
Recognize that some negative reviews may derive from clients with unrealistic expectations—clients who would never be satisfied, regardless of the quality of the representation they received. Other clients simply aren’t rational. This comes across in the review in many instances, and the review can paint a worse picture of the reviewer than it does of you. Readers recognize such comments for what they are, especially if you have other, genuinely positive reviews from clients on the site.
Encourage positive feedback. Asking clients for feedback, or asking them to post reviews after engagements end as a matter of course, can build up your positive reviews online. However, check your jurisdiction’s ethical rules to ensure that client reviews or testimonials are permitted before requesting any such feedback. Don’t post fake reviews or hire anyone else to do so, including a “reputation management” company. ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 7.1 prohibits lawyers from communicating “false and misleading” information about their services, and Model Rule 8.4(c) clearly states that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation. In addition, Model Rule 5.3 requires lawyers to supervise nonlawyers who work for them to ensure they do not violate the ethical rules. Fake reviews are, by their very nature, false and misleading.
The digital world can be a scary place, but following these simple steps can help you to keep your online reputation intact.