QUESTION: While trying to bring our small law firm into the 21st century, I’ve noticed we have few online client reviews. We have never proactively solicited reviews of our lawyers or firm (frankly, because we never really thought of it).
Now that we are considering it to draw in new business as well as uphold the goodwill of the firm, we are hesitant to ask our current and former clients so as not to cross any ethical lines. Is there an acceptable practice for soliciting reviews without violating the rules of professional conduct?
ANSWER: You’re right to be mindful of your online reviews, regardless of what kind of law practice you manage. Search your firm name online and you’re bound to see some ratings or reviews shown on the top of the first page of results.
Establishing and maintaining your online business presence across multiple platforms, such as Google, Yelp, LinkedIn, Facebook and Avvo, often starts with claiming your business and professional profiles. While you do not have control of what people write about you online, you’ve at least taken the first step to managing your profiles.
Now, you must proceed with caution to follow your ethics rules obligations as well as being 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 finding an appropriate, tactful way to ask clients for reviews, there are some significant ethical considerations. The two overall factors are 1) maintaining your clients’ confidentiality and 2) maintaining the integrity of the reviews posted.
Keep a Lid on It
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 only made matters worse. See my previous recommendations on “How to Respond to Negative Online Attorney Reviews.”
But it is not just the content of the 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 attorney reviews as part of your client feedback process, possibly adding to the number and score of your reviews on Google, Facebook, Yelp and Avvo.
In general, Repsight is a third-party service provider that automatically sends your client a request to review the legal services you provided. Not only does it provide the feedback to you and your firm, it automates the redirection of high-scoring reviews to the online review site, while any low-scoring reviews are only privately emailed directly to you. In theory, the good reviews beget more good reviews, while the less than stellar feedback remains behind your office door.
Of course, this does not prevent former clients from still posting negative reviews. It just doesn’t enable them. Also, this third-party company 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, Comment 2.) Is providing services like Repsight with your clients’ names and contact information a breach of your duty of client confidentiality?
Start at the Beginning for Feedback at the End
The North Carolina State Bar answered this question for its lawyers 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.
Under the guidance of the North Carolina opinion, that includes disclosure of Repsight’s process, including:
- 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.”
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 lawyers ask a client for a review while still maintaining the integrity of the review and their own reputation? Lawyers certainly cannot draft the review itself for posting. What about when a little more than just a friendly ask or suggestion occurs?
At What Cost?
While at least one ethics opinion (NYSBA Opinion 1052) gave the green light to attorneys giving clients monetary compensation for leaving an online review, 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 “the credit against the lawyer’s bill is not contingent on the content of the rating, the client is not coerced or compelled to rate the lawyer, and the ratings and reviews are done by the clients and not by the lawyer.”
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 — for example, the Federal Trade Commission’s Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.
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 or 10.0 score is not the measurement of a great lawyer.
About the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism
The Commission on Professionalism was established by the Illinois Supreme Court in September 2005 to foster increased civility, professionalism, and inclusiveness among lawyers and judges in the state of Illinois. By advancing the highest standards of conduct among lawyers, we work to better serve clients and society alike. These duties we uphold are defined under Supreme Court Rule 799(c). For more information, visit 2Civility.org.
Also on Attorney at Work
“Navigating the Maze of Attorney Advertising Rules” by Will Hornsby
“Get More Referrals From Your LinkedIn Profile” by Ruth Carter
“Ethically Outsourcing Social Media Management” by Megan Zavieh
“Setting Up Your Law Firm’s Google My Business Listing” by Mike Ramsey