Civility

Ethically Dealing with Negative Online Attorney Reviews

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Today, online reviews have emerged as the modern equivalent of traditional word-of-mouth recommendations, rendering the impact of receiving a negative review particularly significant.

When faced with challenges to our personal and professional competence, the instinct to react impulsively and emotionally is understandable. The innate inclination to safeguard both ourselves and our professional endeavors, even against seemingly trivial remarks, is a natural response.

Nevertheless, it is imperative to exercise caution and avoid hasty responses, as such reactions may compromise not only our standing in the eyes of the challenger but also, more significantly, in the view of prospective clients. Additionally, there is the inherent risk of violating ethical standards.

In navigating this delicate situation, practitioners have three viable options: (1) attempt to have the review removed; (2) choose to disregard the review; or (3) opt to provide a thoughtful response. Given the nuanced nature of negative reviews, each option will be thoroughly examined below so you can be best prepared.

Is the Review Appropriate to Begin With?

To begin, scrutinize the negative review for appropriateness and adherence to the website’s terms of service. Assess potential violations such as the use of profanity or the inclusion of irrelevant content (e.g., reviewing a car wash on a law firm profile), while also considering the overall legitimacy of the review.

Examine whether the reviewer recognized as a current or former client. Determine if there’s a possibility of confusion, such as mistaking you for another attorney with a similar name. Also, pay attention to any indications in the review itself, such as an admission that the reviewer has never been your client or sought legal counsel from you.

In cases where the post is inappropriate or irrelevant, follow the website’s protocol to flag it for removal. If the review appears to be a mistake, possibly intended for another attorney, explore the option of identifying and contacting the reviewer to remove it themselves. Finally, if the review is authentic, carefully weigh the decision to respond or refrain from engaging with the post, considering the potential impact on your professional image.

Going to the Reviewer

Initially, the prospect of requesting the removal of a review may appear futile. However, there is a possibility that a reviewer might voluntarily take down their post, especially if they inadvertently posted it on the wrong business profile.

Consider making a concise and polite request asking the reviewer to delete the review. Simultaneously, it may be prudent to flag the review for the website moderator in case the initial request is disregarded. Further details on this approach are provided below.

In instances where the reviewer is a genuinely dissatisfied client, it might be worthwhile to initiate communication with the aim of resolving the underlying issue. This proactive approach may increase the likelihood of the client voluntarily removing the negative review.

However, this may be tricky as you don’t want to create more ethical issues in the process. For example, a lawyer may not condition the negotiation, or their willingness to offer a refund, on a client’s withdrawal of a posted negative online review. See NC State Bar Formal Ethics Opinion 1 (2021).

Going to the Website

Websites often allow you to flag or report a suspected false or inappropriate review that was posted on its pages. Below are guides to navigating a few of the more popular websites: Google (Google Business Profile), Avvo, Facebook, and Yelp.

Google

On Google, other than getting the reviewer to remove the comment, there are two ways an inappropriate review is removed:

  1. Google automatically removes it. Google says it attempts to ensure reviews are “authentic, relevant, and useful” by removing suspected spam reviews as they are submitted, using automated detection and removal tools.Note that this may mean that some legitimate reviews may be inadvertently removed too. So, if you do request reviews from clients, it’s recommended to prompt them to write a few sentences about the service they experienced.
  1. Google removes it as Prohibited & Restricted Content. While you won’t get far with reporting a review for removal that you don’t like or disagree with, you can report inappropriate reviews of your business that violate Google’s terms. These reviews may range from fake or deceptive to harassing or obscene.

Requests to remove inappropriate reviews are explained here. You may flag the review from Google Maps, Google My Business, search results, etc., or directly in the Reviews Management Tool, which is probably the easiest way to flag reviews and check the status of previously reported reviews.

Tip #1 – Repeated flagging. While you wait for your flagged inappropriate content to be reviewed (which Google says can “take several days”), others may flag the same inappropriate content too. Business owners have reported having better success when multiple users flag the review.

Tip #2 – Examine the reviewer’s history. Although Google mandates that reviews be posted from a user account, it does not stop dissatisfied individuals from creating an account solely for the purpose of posting spam or fraudulent reviews.

Take note of the user’s displayed name and avatar or photo. Familiarize yourself with their identity – are they a client, an opposing party, or a witness to a specific matter? Click on the reviewer’s name to ascertain the account’s creation date and review history, if any, including any other reviews they may have posted.

Tip #3 – Appeal denials. If the verdict is that a review does not violate Google Policies, you can submit a one-time appeal, again from your Reviews Management Tool.

Select the “appeal eligible reviews” you wish to appeal (up to 10 total). Google says you can submit the appeal form from there and you will receive an emailed decision.

Avvo

Avvo states that its team reads every review before it is published on an attorney’s profile to ensure it meets the Community Guidelines.

Nevertheless, if a post warrants review, you can flag it in Avvo’s dispute process. Note that Avvo states it “will contact the reviewer and ask them to confirm that they were in fact a real or potential client and give them the option to edit or delete the review.”

During the dispute, the review will not appear on your profile. If the reviewer responds and confirms the review, it will be reposted to your profile with any changes specified by the reviewer.

Avvo is short on explanations for the dispute process or any options for appeal. It does indicate that the disputed post will not be visible during its review, so if you see it reappear it was likely determined to be within Avvo’s guidelines.

Facebook

Facebook allows you to avoid all negative recommendations (“recommendations” replaced “reviews” in 2018) by disabling them on your business page. However, this may be more impractical than helpful as you won’t be able to receive positive recommendations either.

If you decide to receive recommendations on Facebook, be sure to routinely review them. You can report recommendations that don’t meet Facebook’s Community Standards. These may be fake or fraudulent reviews from competing businesses, resentful opposing parties, spammers, people who mistakenly post a review on the wrong business page, etc.

To report a review, click the ellipsis in the top right of the post and follow the instructions to flag it.

negative online attorney reviews facebook
Facebook’s reporting options for flagging an inappropriate recommendation.

A frustrating and frequent complaint about recommendations on Facebook is spam posts from fake accounts. Spam accounts are often easy to spot because they have no or very few friends or post history. These can be reported as “Recommendation Not Relevant” and/or “Spam” in hopes of quick removal.

Yelp

Similar to Google, Yelp uses software to assess every submitted review by analyzing “billions of data points from all reviews, reviewers and businesses to evaluate the usefulness and reliability of each review.”

If you suspect a review that violates Yelp’s guidelines got past the review bots, you can report it for human review by clicking the ellipsis in the top right of the review.

Yelp’s user-friendly reporting process asks you to select the most appropriate reason in a dropdown menu followed by adding specific details in a dialogue box. Reference one or more violated guidelines or terms of service in the details you add.

Tip – If you don’t hear back from Yelp’s moderators after several days, use the incident review number provided to follow up with Yelp support.

Respond or Not?

In the event that a reported negative review remains visible, carefully evaluate your options: either publicly respond or choose to take no action. When contemplating your decision, consider various factors, including the potential impact of the “Streisand effect,” as discussed in ABA Formal Opinion 496.

The Streisand effect happens when attempts to conceal or censor something inadvertently attracts more attention to it. The term originates from Barbara Streisand’s legal action against a photographer, which actually increased the popularity of the picture of her house.

Similarly, attorneys responding to negative reviews may inadvertently amplify the review’s visibility, potentially further damaging their reputation, especially if the response is confrontational.

For example, a comment on a negative review may move it to the top of the feed or draw more visibility due to the website’s algorithm.

So, instead of engaging with the reviewers online, lawyers may be better off ignoring them or responding civilly and inviting the reviewer to a private conversation offline.

An example of this invitation, which could be posted as a “Reply” to the review or sent directly to the reviewer if they provide an email, is:

“We are sorry to hear that you had a negative experience with our law firm. We are committed to providing high-quality legal services to our clients and value your feedback. Please call us at (phone number) or email us at (email address) so that we can discuss your concerns and find a satisfactory solution. Thank you for choosing us for your legal needs.”

Separately, if you are confident that the reviewer is not a former or current client or otherwise engaged with your firm, an example reply from the Michigan State Bar’s Formal Ethics Opinion R-26 is:

“[Law firm name] provides our clients with effective, zealous representation and our duty to our clients is our utmost priority. As you were not involved directly in any matters handled by this firm, please contact our office directly so that we may discuss your concerns.”

However, this strategy is only effective if the lawyer is willing and able to address the person’s concerns. Otherwise, this technique may do more harm than good, and even lead to more negative posts.

ABA Formal Opinion 496 goes on to offer another sample response attorneys can use when replying to a negative review by a client or former client: “Professional obligations do not allow me to respond as I would wish.”

On a personal note, while I understand that this response is intended to avoid a breach of client confidentiality, I fear users could interpret it as passive-aggressive.

For that reason, I prefer the longer example cited by the Michigan State Bar, which better portrays the organization in a positive light to potential clients examining your reviews.

Maintaining Confidentiality

When addressing a negative review, a lawyer’s response that goes beyond a simple apology or an invitation to contact the law firm privately may pose a risk of disclosing confidential information, potentially violating RPC 1.6.

Just as lawyers cannot blog about information relating to clients’ representation without client consent, even information in the public record (see ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 480), the majority of ethical opinions, including ABA Formal Opinion 496, state you cannot reveal information to defend your reputation or correct the negative reviewer in such a public forum.

Michigan’s opinion from 2022 (MI State Bar Formal Ethics Opinion R-26) examines the extent to which lawyers may reveal confidences to defend themselves, following the majority view:

The Rule permits disclosure of client confidences or secrets in relevant part, “… to defend the lawyer or the lawyer’s employees or associates against an accusation of wrongful conduct.” The commentary to MRPC 1.6 makes clear that the exceptions to the confidentiality rule are intended to be limited. In general, the interests of the lawyer are sacrificed in favor of preserving the client’s confidences, even when the client’s purpose is wrongful. The commentary further suggests a “legal claim or disciplinary charge” should ordinarily be a predicate to the application of this exception. Therefore, the “accusation of wrongful conduct” provision would generally not apply to negative online reviews. To permit a public accusation of wrongful conduct to fall within the exception would broaden the scope to a degree not contemplated in the rules.

However, a minority of jurisdictions interpret the “controversy” or “self-defense” safe-harbor exception to keeping client confidences as including the defense of negative online reviews. See State Bar of Ariz. Formal Op. 19-10 (2022); State Bar of Ariz. Formal Op. 93-02 (1993); CO Opinion 136 (2019); DC Bar Ethics Opinion 370 (2016).

A lawyer’s duty of confidentiality is for the protection of the lawyer’s client and the client can forfeit that protection. The self-defense exceptions make it clear that a client may not use confidentiality as both a sword and a shield in a formal legal or disciplinary proceeding. … An individual who elects to try their former lawyer in the court of public opinion rather than before a tribunal and makes serious accusations that put confidential information at issue assumes the risk that such information will be disclosed in the lawyer’s response. State Bar of Ariz. Formal Op. 19-10 (2022).

Nevertheless, while it’s not inherently unethical to respond to negative online reviews (see various ethics opinions below and check your jurisdiction), do so carefully. Even a general disclaimer that the content of the negative review is not accurate may reveal that the lawyer was involved in the matter, which could disclose confidential information in and of itself.

In addition to not revealing client confidences, here are some other suggestions for replying to a negative review, should you choose to.

  • Be Proportionate – Keep it simple. If further explanation or discussion is warranted, offer to continue the discussion offline or to hear more from the reviewer in person.
  • Be Restrained – You cannot turn back time or the results of a matter, so don’t get into an if/then argument. Keep looking forward, not back. Yet, if such a legal matter might be ongoing, encourage the reviewer to seek legal counsel.
  • Be Sincere – You may want to acknowledge the reviewer’s feelings and express that you (and your firm) take all client feedback seriously. A display of sincere empathy can go a long way with former clients, and future clients who may see you care about the case and the person.

Turn to GenAI for Assistance

If you want to draft a reply to a negative online review yourself, but are having trouble developing a response that is professional and civil, consider using a generative AI (genAI) tool like ChatGPT or Copilot as a starting draft. (New to genAI? See Getting Started With ChatGPT for Lawyers.)

Here is a sample prompt that lawyers might input into ChatGPT or elsewhere when requesting such language:

“You are a lawyer at a successful law firm that has received a negative online review. You wish to respond to the review in a professional manner. Provide me with sample language that is brief, but sincere, reflects the professional standards we abide by, and offers the opportunity to contact us to further address the reviewer’s concerns.”

By using genAI, lawyers can quickly finetune a draft for the situation. Remember, before finalizing anything, lawyers should always review and edit the generated language to ensure it is appropriate for the specific situation.

Don’t Go It Alone

Regardless of the approach you take in crafting a response, seek the input of at least two individuals, ideally with no involvement in the matter, to review your reply for both content and tone before publishing. Their impartial assessment will provide an additional layer of assurance that your response maintains a balanced, restrained, and genuine demeanor.

Given the broad accessibility of the internet to the public, ensure that you are comfortable with the prospect of your response being perpetually visible. Remember, the primary audience for your response may not solely consist of former clients but also prospective ones.

Relevant ethical opinions:

MI State Bar Formal Ethics Opinion R-26 (2022)

ABA Formal Opinion 496 Responding to Online Criticism (2021)

NC State Bar Formal Ethics Opinion 1 (2021)

FL Bar Ethics Opinion 21-1 (2021)

FL Bar Ethics Opinion 20-1 (2020)

NJ Ethics Opinion 738 (2020)

CO Opinion 136 (2019)

KY Bar Formal Ethics Opinion (2019)

MO Bar Informal Opinion 2018-08 (2018)

DC Bar Ethics Opinion 370 (2016)

TX Center for Legal Ethics Op. 662 (2016)

WV Advisory Opinion 2015-02 (2015)

NYSBA Opinion 1032 (2014)

PA Bar Opinion 2014-200 (2014)

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