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January 13, 2021

ABA issues new guidance for how lawyers should respond to online criticism, negative reviews

CHICAGO, Jan. 13, 2021 — The American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility released today a formal opinion addressing the ethical obligations for lawyers to consider when they contemplate responding to online criticism and posted negative reviews.

Formal Opinion 496 notes that lawyers are regularly targets of internet postings, and stresses that ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6(a) prohibits them from disclosing information relating to any client’s representation or information that could reasonably lead to the discovery of confidential information by another. The formal opinion adds that a negative online review, alone, does not meet the requirements of permissible disclosure under the “self-defense” provision of ABA model rules.

“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,” the opinion said.

The opinion said the lawyer may request that the website or search engine host remove the post for a specific reason although the lawyer is still obligated not to disclose confidential information. The lawyer might also reach out to the client or former client to discuss the matter outside of the public arena.

If a lawyer chooses to respond publicly, permissible responses could include posting an invitation to contact the lawyer privately to resolve the matter or indicating that professional considerations preclude an online response. 

The ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility periodically issues ethics opinions to guide lawyers, courts and the public in interpreting and applying ABA model ethics rules to specific issues of legal practice, client-lawyer relationships and judicial behavior. Recent ABA ethics opinions are available on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility.

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