Today’s attorneys have discovered the importance of online lawyer reviews. While one bad review has the potential to cripple a firm, a few good reviews can provide a ton of marketing power. Timely, effective management of your online reviews can be a strong tool for generating leads.
Online platforms are putting your firm’s profile as the lead component of search results, whether you’ve claimed the profile or not. Establishing and maintaining your online business presence across multiple platforms like Google, Yelp, LinkedIn, Facebook and Avvo, often starts with claiming your business and professional profiles. While you don’t have control of what people write about you, at least you’ve taken the first step in managing your profiles.
As with all elements of practicing law, you must proceed within the ethical rules and be mindful of the rules and procedures of each online platform. For example, soliciting reviews on Yelp goes against its Business Account Guidelines. As Yelp suggests, “The businesses that do best on Yelp are the ones that provide a great customer experience to everyone who walks in the door without any expectation or encouragement that they write a review.”
Aside from the platforms’ rules and determining an appropriate way to ask for client reviews, there are other significant ethical considerations. The two overall factors are (1) maintaining your clients’ confidentiality and (2) maintaining the integrity of the reviews posted.
To Respond, or Not to Respond
Some trigger-happy attorneys have gotten into hot water over their responses to less than positive online reviews. In the process of firing off an ill-planned reply, they have revealed some clients’ confidential information and made matters only worse.
But it’s not just the content of the online posts that can reveal confidential material. The confidentiality rule encompasses the entire attorney-client relationship – applying not only to matters communicated in confidence by the client but also to all information relating to the representation itself.
Consider the attorney service provider Repsight. Repsight automates the collection of online lawyer reviews as part of the client feedback process. Repsight automatically sends your client a request to review the legal services you provided. Then, not only does it provide the feedback to you and your firm, but it automates the redirection of high-scoring reviews to the online review site, and privately emails low-scoring reviews to you.
In theory, the good reviews beget more good reviews, while the less than stellar feedback remains behind your office door. This has the potential to add to the number and score of your reviews on Google, Facebook, Yelp and Avvo. Of course, this doesn’t prevent former clients from posting negative reviews. It just doesn’t enable them.
It’s worth noting that Repsight (and similar service providers) must have access to your clients’ names and contact information. A fundamental principle in the client-lawyer relationship is that, in the absence of the client’s informed consent, the lawyer must not reveal information relating to the representation. See Rule 1.6(a) and comment 2. Is providing services like Repsight with your clients’ names and contact information a breach of your duty of client confidentiality?
The Ethics of “Informed Consent”
The North Carolina State Bar answered this question in an opinion (2018 Formal Ethics Opinion 7) allowing this practice, so long as the client has given “informed consent” that the lawyer may provide the client’s information. As in Rule 1.0(e), informed consent requires the lawyer to communicate adequate information and explanation about such a client feedback service.
The North Carolina opinion, which includes disclosure of Repsight’s process, states:
- The lawyer pays a monthly fee for Repsight services;
- The lawyer will provide the client’s name and contact information to Repsight after the representation has concluded;
- Repsight will contact the client regarding the review;
- Only 4- and 5-star reviews will be posted on Google and other internet search engines; and
- Reviews with 3 stars or less will be shared with the lawyer, but will not be posted by Repsight or the lawyer anywhere on the internet. See Rule 1.4; Rule 8.4(c).
The opinion says your transparency in how the service works keeps you from deceiving the client about the treatment of negative reviews. It also satisfies your ethical obligation by not engaging “in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.” See Rule 8.4(c).
Additionally, the North Carolina opinion concludes that you may contact a client who nonetheless posted a negative review. If that client agrees to modify the rating to 4– or 5-stars, you may direct Repsight to contact the client to obtain and post the revised review, provided:
- There can be no quid pro quo for the revised review;
- The lawyer may not solicit, encourage, or assist in the posting of fake, false, or misleading reviews. (See Rule 8.4(c)); and
- The lawyer may not threaten, bully, or harass the client to provide a positive 4- or 5-star review.
So, how can attorneys ask a client for a review while still maintaining the integrity of the review and their own reputation? Attorneys certainly cannot draft the review itself for posting. But what about when there’s a little more than just a friendly ask?
The Cost of Soliciting Lawyer Reviews
At least one ethical opinion (NYSBA Opinion 1052) has given the green light to attorneys providing clients with monetary compensation for leaving an online review. However, such a practice walks a fine line ethically and can call into question the measurement of competent representation provided from one client to the next.
In that instance, the New York State Bar Association said that a lawyer may give clients a $50 credit on their legal bills for an online review provided (1) the credit against the lawyer’s bill is not contingent on the content of the rating, (2) the client is not coerced or compelled to rate the lawyer and (3) the ratings and lawyer reviews are done by the clients and not by the attorney.
Put another way, the more the lawyer is involved, the less authentic the review becomes. At some point, a client review no longer is “freely given” and could be viewed as being made by or on behalf of the lawyer, constituting an “advertisement” under the Rules. Furthermore, giving billing credit or other forms of consideration for a review may have other legal implications, e.g., Federal Trade Commission’s Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, 16 CFR 255.
Remember, there is impropriety, and there is the perception of impropriety. How do you want to earn your reputation? How do you NOT want to lose it? And lastly, remind yourself that a 5-star rating isn’t the measure of a great lawyer.