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April 2018

Bad online review? TECHSHOW experts advise next steps

You’ve gotten a negative review from a client – and even worse, when you Google your name, that feedback appears near the top of search results.

What do you do next?

Your first instinct may be to immediately respond the moment you see the review. But – two seasoned attorneys on the frontlines of advising lawyers on the ins and outs of online marketing disagree. Responding in the heat of the moment is the last thing you should do.

Speaking at a program, “The New Word of Mouth: Lawyer Ratings and Reviews,” during ABA TECHSHOW 2018, the founder of the digital legal marketing firm AttorneySync, Gyi Tsakalakis, and solo practitioner Erin Gerstenzang of EHG Law Firm, advised attendees on dealing with negative client feedback online.

According to Gerstenzang, lawyers are particularly bad at dealing with such feedback. “It’s part because we think we’re great at these adversarial situations – ‘I’m a courtroom lawyer, this is what I was trained to deal with. Somebody is attacking me personally and I can handle it,’” she said. But, “For the same reasons we are not supposed to represent ourselves in court, we are never qualified to respond to a negative review about ourselves – because it is too personal, it is too painful and inevitably we end up doing the wrong thing.”

Case in point: lawyer "Betty T." “She was one of the first attorneys to get into trouble for responding to a negative review,” Gerstenzang said.

Betty received bad feedback from a client on Avvo. Feeling unfairly targeted and misrepresented, she fired off an emotional response after failing to get the platform to remove the review.

Betty's comeback led to a disciplinary complaint because her response revealed confidential information about the case. According to her attorney, Betty did nothing wrong. “[The] public feels entitled to slander a lawyer and they don’t realize they’ve blown privilege when they do so,” said Betty's lawyer, as told by Gerstenzang.

But “privilege and confidentiality are two very separate things,” explained Gerstenzang. “When you are sued for malpractice or when you find yourself in a disciplinary complaint setting – what the Rules call a formal tribunal – you are allowed to speak about the specifics of your case.”

“Unfortunately for Betty, and for the rest of us lawyers, online reviews are not a public tribunal…You cannot discuss the facts of your case,” said Gerstenzang, citing Model Rule 1.6 [Confidentiality of Information].

So how should lawyers handle these reviews if they’re not responding themselves?

According to Gerstenzang, after a cooling-off period, attorneys should turn to someone else they trust. “You need to go to your trusted advisor and have your friends or your colleagues write your response for you.”

Together with an advisor, lawyers can better craft suitable responses that are devoid of unnecessary emotion.

A good response is one that acknowledges the experience of the client. “Own your mistakes – ‘I’m sorry you had this experience,’” Gerstenzang said.

Gerstenzang cited Disney’s rules of customer service as a reference for the response. The company’s first two rules: listen and apologize.

“For lawyers, listening and apologizing are not our strengths,” admitted Gerstenzang. However, “Almost 90 percent of the time, all the problems that come up will be resolved if you listen (and your client is heard) and you apologize.”

You may be upset about the lack of context in these negative reviews, but refrain from saying too much, particularly about outcomes, which can be complex, difficult to describe succinctly and often subject to misinterpretation, Gerstenzang said.  “You are not in a tit for tat. You are not going to debate the merits of the review,” she explained. Remember: “you are not just talking to that client… you are talking to all potential clients.”

Some of the best responses are ones where lawyers communicate that they want to right what’s wrong, signaling that they care about their clients. “And that’s all we really want from the attorneys we hire,” Gerstenzang said.

Gerstenzang and Tsakalakis also advised attendees to check out the rules of the review sites. “Get to know the different guidelines of the different sites because certain sites have guidelines where you can actually get the platform to remove the reviews,” said Tsakalakis, noting that it may be a particularly effective strategy when dealing with anonymous feedback.

For some, it may be tempting to bury their head in the sand and try to just ignore the reviews that are out there.

But Gerstenzang and Tsakalakis said that’s one of the biggest mistakes lawyers can make.

Citing statistics from a recent Harris survey, Tsakalakis revealed how powerful it can be to respond. “Of customers who received a response from a company after negative feedback….33 percent turned around and posted a positive review, and 34 percent deleted their negative review.”

“An acknowledgement of the issue and having some empathy for the client goes a really long way,” Tsakalakis said.

Gerstenzang explained the urgency in more pressing terms: “This is a new era. This is the new world of running a business and being a professional,” she said. “Whether we like it or not, the internet will find us and talk about us. So, the question is, do we want to be in the driver’s seat and have some influence on that or do we want it just to happen to us?”

For more than 30 years, ABA TECHSHOW has brought lawyers and technology together for an annual conference and expo.  The three-day event is produced by the ABA Law Practice Division.

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.
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