*Updated January 21, 2021 – Added ABA Formal Opinion 496 info.
I recently gave a presentation to the Riverside County Bar Association on the topic of ethics in attorney advertising, and one of my favorite topics to talk about is about how lawyers should and shouldn’t respond to online negative reviews. If you’ve arrived at this article you’ve probably just received a negative review on Yelp, Google, Avvo or another platform and you probably don’t know what to do, and how far to go in your response. As an online marketer who only works with lawyers I can tell you that online reviews are a critical element of your online universe, if you don’t pay attention to reviews not only are you missing out on a marketing opportunity, it is detrimental to your brand (yes, you have a brand).
A survey by Software Advice from 2014 suggested that Yelp is the #1 trusted website for attorney reviews. Full stop. What? The website where Users review restaurants? Yes, that website. In fact, our lawyer directory analysis consistently reveals that Yelp is one of the most visible attorney directories compared to the leaders in the industry, and a 2019 study from FreshChalk claims that “Yelp appears in the top five search results for 92% of Google web queries that consist of a city and business category”. Yelp’s not just a place to find some good grub, people are legitimately looking there for service providers & professionals and what people are saying about them. The same survey revealed that 75% of prospective clients will travel further to meet an attorney who had better online reviews that a lawyer who did not. You might have already known that, but this is further confirmation.
Also, if you didn’t already notice, your Google My Business (Maps) listing pulls in reviews from places like Lawyers.com, Avvo, Facebook and other platforms right into your profile automatically. This is because Google knows the power and influence of reviews, and wants to make seeing them convenient for your potential clients.
All of this means that if you were putting off paying attention to online reviews, it’s time to start.
What are the Ethical Opinions About Lawyers Responding to Negative Reviews?
The most cited published opinions about responding to negative online attorney reviews come from LACBA Opinion 525, and San Francisco Bar Opinion 2014-1, and ABA Opinion 496 which give some guidance and clarity on how to ethically respond to a negative online review. In a nutshell, LACBA and SF Bar opinions say that you can respond appropriately while the ABA recommends silence.
LACBA and SF Bar Opinions mostly agree on the following:
- as long as you don’t disclose any information that the former client hadn’t already disclosed,
- your response does not injure the former client, personally or in regards to your prior work,
- as long as your response is proportionate and restrained.
There have been instances, like in Illinois, where attorneys have responded to a bad review in a manner that was bordering on vindictive – and certainly outside the best practice of “proportionate”, and were reprimanded.
LACBA Opinion 525 states:
If Attorney does not disclose confidential or attorney-client privileged information, and does not act in a way that will injure Former Client in a matter involving the prior representation, he/she may respond. However, the Attorney’s response also must be proportionate and restrained… He/she may say no more than is necessary to rebut the public statement made by Former Client.
SF Bar Opinion 2014-1 states:
If the matter Attorney previously handled has concluded, responding to the former client’s review through statements that do not disclose any confidential information would not typically constitute a breach of loyalty, even though Attorney’s response might be deemed “adverse” to the former client. Simply responding to the review and denying the veracity or merit of the former client’s assertions (without disclosing confidential information) would not be likely to injure the former client with respect to any work Attorney previously did, or to undermine such work.
ABA Formal Opinion 496 states:
“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… Lawyers who choose to respond online must not disclose information that relates to a client matter, or that could reasonably lead to the discovery of confidential information by another, in the response.”
The ABA goes on to offer best practices:
“A lawyer may request that the host of the website or search engine remove the post… In making a request to remove the post, unless the client consents to disclosure, the lawyer may not disclose any information that relates to a client’s representation or that could reasonably lead to the discovery of confidential information by another, but may state that the post is not accurate or that the lawyer has not represented the poster if that is the case.”
As a side note, the suggestion that asking the website to remove the post (review) is essentially ridiculous and not productive. The 2 most relevant and impactful review platforms are Google and Yelp. Google will almost never remove a review unless there is foul or racist language, and Yelp offers business owners 1 opportunity to request suppression (not deletion) of a review if it meets their criteria. My experience is that appeals to Yelp are about 50% effective, but the review must blatantly break their terms & conditions. Website owners consider reviews (bad or good) as valuable “User Generated Content” (UGC). UGC helps keep people engaged and trusting of a website platform – therefore providing little incentive for any website to voluntarily delete it.
In an article written on the ABA website specifically regarding ABA Opinion 496 by David L. Hudson Jr. (Assistant Professor of Law, author, co-author, or co-editor of more than 40 books and First Amendment expert), Mr. Hudson suggests:
“If the criticism comes directly from a client or former client, the lawyer may not respond online. One permissible response, even to a negative post by a client or former client, is: “Professional obligations do not allow me to respond as I would wish.”
My Personal Opinion About ABA 496
Take this with a grain of salt, I’m not a lawyer. ABA Opinion 496 directly challenges the opinions of LACBA 525 and San Francisco Bar 2014-1 which are allowing of some level of appropriate response from the lawyer’s viewpoint, provided that the lawyer does not A) break confidentiality, and B) the response is proportionate to the level of the original review. To me, this is reasonable. ABA 496 rationalizes this challenge by referencing “…New York State Bar Association Ethics Opinion 1032 (2014), “[u]nflattering but less formal comments on the skills of lawyers, whether in hallway chatter, a newspaper account, or a website, are an inevitable incident of the practice of a public profession, and may even contribute to the body of knowledge available about lawyers for prospective clients seeking legal advice.” My personal opinion is that an attorney’s “proportionate and measured” response (as defined and outlined above) provides just as much, if not more valuable “body of knowledge about [the lawyer] for prospective clients seeking legal advice.” If that was the goal, ABA 496 silences the 50% of “chatter” directly from the lawyer in question that would allow a prospective client the opportunity to make a more informed decision. Therefore, I am not supportive or in agreement with the ABA 496 opinion because it demands a lawyer to accept public, published criticism with no chance to provide facts or a respectful & measured response to the contrary, severely damaging their ability to maintain their credibility & reputation with existing or potential clients.
What Should I do If I Get a Bad Review?
*This is my opinion as a marketing professional, each attorney should follow their state’s and local professional & ethical standards and foresee potential legal & ethical ramifications. If you have significant concerns you should consult an attorney who is experienced in legal & ethical matters before taking a course of action.
The first thing I would suggest any lawyer to do is to change your perspective on a bad review. Given all of the data and evidence above about how prospective clients use reviews, you should consider a negative review as a marketing opportunity. I’m not saying it’s a positive experience, but there’s no reason you can’t turn it into a way to show people how you respond to criticism and an adversarial situation – that is why they’re considering hiring you for after all. The first line of defense should be a personal & private request to the former client to remove the negative review. You don’t have to beg, but make your position clear about why you don’t deserve the criticism, show how you genuinely tried to help them and to consider the constraints of their case. There’s a chance that they wrote the review in haste, have cooled off, and are willing to delete the review with a little prodding. This approach has been successful several times with my clients.
If you don’t do this and go straight to nukes, there’s absolutely no chance they’ll remove it.
That didn’t work, what now?
I advise my clients to write up a measured & proportionate response, wait for a few hours or a day to consider any potential consequences, then revisit the response and edit as needed before we post it to any platform. An ounce of time can create a ton of perspective. Here’s my general guidelines for responding to a negative review:
- Restate the actual problem they complained about.
- State why you couldn’t deliver on their complaint in a general manner. Something like: ‘Unfortunately, in your specific case the law didn’t support your proposed argument or strategy, we had to pursue the best course of action to get you the best result possible’.
- Stick to the information presented in their review. This goes back to the language of “proportionate and retrained” in LACBA 525.
- Hail Mary. Reiterate your request for them to delete the review, and why they should. Who knows, maybe they will… it certainly doesn’t hurt.
- Remember, at this point you’re no longer trying to change the mind a disgruntled former client; you’re now marketing to NEW potential clients who are reading your response (and they do).
If you choose to follow ABA 496 advice I would, as Mr. Hudson advises, simply reply “Professional obligations do not allow me to respond as I would wish.”
Move on With Life
That’s it. If they reply to your response ignore it. Yes, really. You’re done. Any further attention to this is now wasted effort, non-billable and there’s virtually no way you’ll get your desired outcome. If there’s an inkling of truth in their criticism, use this as an opportunity to learn, improve a broken process or do better next time. There’s no value dwelling on it and having a bad review take up emotional real estate is exhausting.