Experience—as well as lawyer disciplinary reports—confirms that the single most important advice for any lawyer facing a bad online client review is to maintain control of your emotional response. Avoid the visceral urge to immediately post the five worst things your ungrateful client ever did.
Sure, prompt action may be important, but lawyers are human. Most of us are not well served by giving in to our lizard-brain instincts.
So take a deep breath. Step away from the computer or the phone. Consult someone. And probably sleep on it.
Check the Facts
Do not proceed without investigating whether any factual claims in the review are actually true. From time to time, negative reviewers do have legitimate complaints.
My favorite two words of advice to lawyers are familiar to regular readers. Professionals who help clients for a living have a hard time stopping to get help. That’s especially true when their conduct—and their very professionalism—is under attack. Whom should a lawyer turn to?
Maybe not your local ethics nerds. (Really. Read on.)
What you need most is objective advice, perhaps even professional advice, about how the world, including clients, will respond to both the review and what you might say in response. After all, if the review may live forever, so may your response.
The perfect advisor? Probably a savvy marketing or public relations pro. But in my experience, your law partner or spouse may be almost as good—if they’ll give their honest opinion. You need someone with street sense who is brutally honest about how others might react to the review and your response.
They need to help you answer a simple question: Do you need to respond?
Very often, the answer is: Yes, a response is needed, if only to demonstrate that you care about and are willing to address complaints.
Before we detour into ethics, be aware that some sites actually have their own process by which a lawyer may complain about a review. Lawyer-friendly Avvo has its own internal process by which a lawyer aggrieved by an unfair or untrue review may be able to have the negative review removed. Google may be willing to take down comments that violate its terms of service.
It may also be possible to reach reviewers offline, address their concerns and persuade them to take down their comment.
That brings us to ethics. The rules are pretty straightforward.
The scope of information that ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6(a) makes “confidential” is sweeping—all “information relating to the representation of a client,” whatever the source. Not just privileged information, and not just embarrassing information, and some information that may even be a matter of public record.
Rule 1.6 is clear that a lawyer cannot reveal or disclose any confidential information, except in very limited circumstances, unless the client consents. Almost all lawyers have muscle memory of a “self-defense” exception. But lawyers are also badly misinformed about its scope.
In fact, Rule 1.6(b)(5) allows us to reveal confidential information only
“to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary… to establish a claim or defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client … or to respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client…”
Ethics authorities and courts reading most state versions of this Rule have found that an online shouting match, as opposed to litigation, does not involve “a claim or defense” or a “proceeding.” On that basis, most (but not all) authorities that have issued guidance conclude that a lawyer is not permitted to use any confidential information to respond to a client’s negative online review.
Fight Fire With Fire?
The scope of confidentiality does vary a little from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The scope of the “self-defense” exception varies a wee bit. And a few jurisdictions do say that their “self-defense” exception does allow a lawyer to unload confidential information on a client who trash-talks the lawyer in public.
But fighting fire with fire online, with a caustic client, is dangerous.
First, it may be bad for marketing and public relations.
Second, even if there’s no guidance saying so yet, your jurisdiction may agree with the majority that you just can’t use confidential information this way.
Third, even if you can, the Rule could not be clearer that, if you use too much confidential information, you violate the Rule. Determining what is “too much” is tricky.
That client who felt aggrieved enough to review you negatively may well be willing to file a bar complaint, too. Numerous bars have sanctioned lawyers for putting out either any confidential information, or just too much, in response to online client criticism. The danger is real.
One other ethics point. Remarkably, a client may complain on a review site about their current lawyer. While clients owe no legal duty to their lawyer to talk nicely about them, in most circumstances, public criticism is probably more than sufficient reason for a lawyer to withdraw from a representation.
Keep It Professional
Every circumstance is different, of course, and your mileage may vary.
Generally, however, my own advice to lawyers facing a bad review is pretty simple: If you feel you do need to respond—and marketing pros will very often counsel that some response is needed—don’t disclose any confidential information, and keep the response generic, respectful and professional (see “Take the High Road”).
Further, depending on the circumstances, you may consider also sending a private response to the reviewer or privately reaching out to see if some underlying problem can be resolved by direct contact.
Whatever you do, though, pause, take a deep breath, get help and be careful out there.