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 two most cited published opinions about responding to negative online attorney reviews come from LACBA Opinion 525, and SF Bar Opinion 2014-1 both of which give some guidance and clarity on how to ethically respond to a negative online review. In a nutshell, both opinions say that you can respond appropriately:
- 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.
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.
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.
What Should I do If I Get a Bad Review?
The first thing I would ask 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 request to the former client to remove the negative review. You don’t have to kiss their ass or plea from a position of weakness, 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.
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 response, wait for a few hours or a day to consider any potential consequences, then revisit the response and edit as needed before they post it to any platform. An ounce of time can create a ton of perspective. Here’s my general rules 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).
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 holding a grudge.
Disclosure: Everest Legal Marketing has an Agency relationship with Yelp and Lawyers.com. Any statements made mentioning these platforms are merely opinions about how to use them for the best possible result.