In this new feature, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism will be answering questions about ethical quandaries and issues in the business of practicing law.
QUESTION: “I had a perfect ranking going on a popular attorney review website until a former client posted a negative review about his case. This former client was clearly more upset about the judge’s ruling against him than the quality of my representation, which included a well-advised consultation on the costs and risks he was taking with the litigation from the start. He’s just wrong, and I want to set the record straight with an online reply. I have a right to defend my work, correct?”
ANSWER: Hippocrates is often credited with originating the phrase, “Desperate times call for desperate matters.” This, my friend, is not one of those times.
Take a moment and step back from the situation. Evaluate.
Attacks on our personal and professional abilities can hit close to home and elicit a dramatic, immediate response. It’s in our nature to defend ourselves and our work, even from the tritest comments. You may feel desperate to respond in haste to save face before your attacker and all those observing.
Don’t do it. Or at least don’t do it until you have properly evaluated the entire situation and drafted a well-crafted reply — if needed at all.
Push the Pause Button
First, analyze the negative review to determine if it is inappropriate or is in violation of the terms of service of the site. This should begin with confirming that it is actually a legitimate negative review. Was the person posting actually your client? Did he mistake you for another attorney with the same or similar name? Do you have reason to contest or report the posted review?
Various online resources allow you to control how a reviewer’s comments may be viewed by others, or how you may report a suspected false or problem review or comment. Two popular online portals, LinkedIn and Avvo, offer varied options for a user:
LinkedIn (more control):
- Allows you to respond.
- Allows you to uncheck a review to remove it from your profile.
- Allows you to move reviews up or down in order.
- Allows you to “ask for changes” from the reviewer.
Avvo (less control):
- Allows you to respond.
- Allows you to flag a comment to begin a “dispute process” for review.
Engage or Move On?
Second, you should weigh your options to publicly respond or do nothing. Sometimes, as difficult as it may be, you might determine it’s best to leave sleeping dogs lie. Sure, you’re not just replying to the person posting the negative review — you’re providing a glimpse into your style, demeanor, professionalism and so on to future clients who may be reading the review. However, if the negative review seems impractical or irrational on its face, then maybe it has little to no real impact on your profile. You might decide not to draw more attention to it by engaging in a reply.
Nevertheless, while it is not inherently unethical to respond to negative online reviews (see various relevant ethics opinions below), do so carefully.
First and foremost, be mindful to uphold all confidentiality duties to your current and former clients as Model Rule 1.6 demands (absent the former client’s informed consent or waiver of confidentiality). In addition to not revealing client confidences, here are other suggestions for drafting your response:
- Be proportionate. Keep it simple. If more explanation or discussion is warranted, offer to continue the discussion offline or to hear more from them in person.
- Be restrained. You cannot turn back time or the results of a matter, so don’t get into an if-then argument. Keep looking forward, not back. Yet, if such a legal matter might be ongoing, encourage them to seek legal counsel.
- Be sincere. You may want to acknowledge the reviewer’s feelings and express that you (and your firm) take all client feedback seriously. A display of sincere empathy can go a long way with former clients, and future clients who may see you care about the case and the person.
If you’re having difficulty drafting a response with such attributes, try turning to the professionals for help. Service industries such as hotels and restaurants have honed their skills at constructing online negative review responses to pacify even the nastiest of former patrons. See how they have structured their responses to give yourself some examples.
Phone a Friend
Once you have your draft response ready to submit, you’re not done yet. Find at least two people, preferably with no involvement in the matter, to review your reply for content and tone. Their independent analysis of your reply will further ensure that you have remained proportionate, restrained and sincere.
Since the internet is for all to see and forever, be sure you’re OK with ringing that bell. Otherwise, learn from the experience and move on.
Relevant Ethical Opinions
- New York State Bar Association Opinion 1032 (2014) — Responding to a former client’s critical commentary on a website
- Pennsylvania Bar Association Opinion 2014-200 — Lawyer’s response to client’s negative online review
- Bar Association of San Francisco Opinion 2014-1
- Texas Center for Legal Ethics Opinion 662
- NYSBA Opinion 912 — Publishing criticism of other attorneys
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, please visit 2Civility.org, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism’s website.
More Good Ideas from Attorney at Work
Subscribe to the Daily Dispatch and Weekly Wrap (it’s free) and follow us on Twitter @attnyatwork.