Many of us have felt the temptation. When someone expresses an opinion on Facebook or Twitter that lights a fire in us, we feel the need to respond, rebut or rebuke. The fire might burn even brighter when that person is attacking our professional reputation. Now that there are multiple sites that allow people to rank everything from restaurants to plumbers, even lawyers may find themselves with an online “rating.” However, responding unprofessionally to negative online reviews can do far more reputational damage, and, for lawyers, may even lead to disciplinary action.
One Chicago lawyer had the misfortune of becoming the shining example of what not to do when responding to online criticism. In an incident that came to a conclusion earlier this year, a former American Airlines flight attendant had been fired for allegedly assaulting a co-worker and hired the attorney in a failed attempt to obtain unemployment benefits.
Following a disagreement with the attorney about the handling of his case, the flight attendant posted a negative review on Avvo, a popular lawyer rating website that includes profiles for every registered lawyer, regardless of whether a lawyer chooses to be on the site. After the attorney successfully had the first review removed, the client posted a second review, which prompted the attorney to respond. While her response was mostly professional, she included that “his own actions in beating up a female co-worker are what caused the consequences he is now so upset about,”thus breaking attorney-client confidentiality. The Illinois ARDC reprimanded the attorney for revealing client confidences (and for a second unrelated count). In a similar case, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected a panel reprimand as an insufficient punishment, issuing a public reprimand instead.
Similar circumstances could certainly arise with other lawyer-specific websites, such as Martindale and Super Lawyers. Meanwhile, California lawyer Monica Zent has launched Foxwordy, a social network for lawyers on which ratings are “based on interactions with your peers, giving you a fresh alternative to arbitrary consumer site ratings.”
Non-lawyer-specific sites, such as the social network LinkedIn or the ratings site Yelp, can create equally troubling headaches. Firms and individual lawyers continue to participate on LinkedIn at increasing rates. And among people searching for a lawyer by using online reviews, 58% use Yelp.
Fueling concerns about online review is the controversy over the last few years claiming that Yelp favors businesses who are willing to pay to hide negative reviews. In one incident, a Yelp employee posted a negative review of a business owner who declined to advertise on the site. Though Yelp was exonerated in court on the claim, Vice President of Corporate Communications Vince Sollitto has admitted that there may be problems with Yelp’s algorithm. (Avvo has faced similar criticisms for their hazy and easily manipulated ratings algorithm, which takes into account a) the lawyer’s own profile information, b) peer reviews, and c) client reviews.)
Despite the problems surrounding negative reviews, consumers of legal services are likely to continue to use them. Here are some suggestions for lawyers to deal with them in a professional and ethical manner.
- Truth and transparency: Sure, ratings sites or social networks like those mentioned above can be manipulated. Terms like “sockpuppetry” (making fake online profiles to post false positive or negative reviews) and “astroturfing” (masking the true identity of the sponsor of a message or messages to give the impression of grassroots support) have popped up accordingly. But succumbing to these unethical tactics while online can lead to real-life consequences for lawyers. So check to make sure your profile is accurate, and don’t attempt to conceal past problems, even if they do hurt your rating. Also, even if you dislike rating sites, it may be worth investigating what goes into your profiles to understand what factors go into a rating system.
- When responding, do so carefully: According to two California ethics opinions, it is not inherently unethical to respond to negative online reviews. The Los Angeles County bar wrote that responses should be “proportionate and restrained.” So what kind of responses are acceptable? In addition to being mindful about revealing client confidences, take care that your response not exceed what is absolutely necessary to counter the information in the review. According to Avvo general counsel Josh King, “The trick is to not get defensive, petty, or feel the need to directly refute what you perceive is wrong with the review.” As with any response to a customer service complaint, a sincere and well-crafted response can actually have positive results. Acknowledging the reviewer’s feelings, and letting him know that the firm and lawyers care about the reviewer’s opinion and resolving any disagreement can address the issue. Such a response looks good to future potential clients and may ultimately convince the upset client to remove his or her negative review.
- When in doubt, write nothing: If you’re concerned that your reply may push the line of what’s acceptable, don’t post it. But, obviously, that doesn’t mean that you have to accept wholly false reviews. In March, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed jury awards for attorney Jan V. Hinson’s two defamation claims against a client who called Hinson “a CROOK lawyer” on the website Kudzu.com. On June 24, 2014, Texas law firm Grissom & Thompson filed a defamation lawsuit against Joseph Browning for posting a “blatantly false” Yelp review. (Browning maintains that his review is “exactly accurate.”)
For law firms and solo practitioners, a great deal rides on reputation. Negative reviews can damage a reputation, and lawyers are entirely within their rights to refute unfair reviews. But remember: People often remember demeanor as much as results, and tone as much as content.
On the flip side, some lawyers have reported that Avvo has been an effective business generation tool for them, so whether or not you choose to interact with an online rating site, make sure you stay within the boundaries of professionalism and legal ethics.
John Edwards, our intern from Loyola University Chicago School of Law, contributed to this post.