Georgia’s Solo & Small Firm Institute is in the Works

Take Charge is a special event.  It’s Georgia’s Solo and Small Firm Institute and it is scheduled for July 14 & 15 at the State Bar Headquarters.  You can see the agenda, register at the early bird rate, and more at the official conference website, www.gabarsolo.org.

Stay tuned for conference updates!

– Natalie & Bill

Unfavorable Online Reviews – What to Do (or Not)

That client said what about me! Being a lawyer representing people and organizations who could be on a winning or losing side means there will likely be someone who’s unhappy with a result, and if you the practitioner are not careful, they could also be unhappy with you personally.  Regardless of the reason for a client’s unhappiness, today a disgruntled individual can take to the airwaves online to express their displeasure.  Online sites like complaint.com and other negative feedback sites have long existed for consumers to make complaints, but with online lawyer directories with open comment areas and feedback ratings, the possibility of a negative client rating is now a reality for most lawyers.

So how should one deal with a bad rating or negative comments – true or not – when they have been placed online by your client or former client?

First, change the scenery.  Instead of responding online, simply pick up the phone and reach out to the client.  Conversation is usually better than email in these situations, and perhaps you can work out a retraction by clearing things up over a chat.  (A confrontational or defensive approach, of course, will just make things worse, whether oral or written.)  If the client or former client won’t speak to you, then move on to sending a handwritten note or letter – again, not an email unless there is no other way – discussing your position, sympathizing with their dismay about the results, and/or expressing any other sentiments which could lead to a reconciliation of the relationship.

Second, be acutely aware of your ethical duty to the client or former client.   GRPC Rule 1.6 severely limits a lawyer’s ability to respond to online criticism, because it makes presumptively confidential “all information gained in the professional relationship with a client,” regardless of the source, and with certain exceptions prohibits disclosure without the client’s “informed consent” (defined at Rule 1.0(h)). That obligation continues after the representation ends.  One exception is “to establish a . . . defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client,” but don’t rely on that.  A typical legal definition of “controversy” is “a litigated question; adversary proceeding in a court of law; a civil action or suit.”  Comments [16] and [17] to Rule 1.6 refer to legal claims or disciplinary charges.  And in In Re Skinner, 295 Ga. 217 (2014), without even mentioning the defense exception, the court disciplined a lawyer who had posted information about a client in response to the client’s online criticism.

So if you can’t disclose any information you learned during the representation, what can you say?  You might say something like, “I respectfully disagree” and/or “ethics rules prevent me from responding.”  But consider whether even that is worth it, since from an already angry client it may well trigger an additional acidic post.  The impact of an isolated criticism or two will generally fade over time (and if clients are moved to attack you more often, serious self-examination is in order).  If the criticism is false and genuinely harmful, there are civil remedies.  Pampattiwar v. Hinson, 326 Ga. App. 163 (2014)(affirming verdict against former client based on fraud, libel per se, and false light invasion of privacy).

Getting over negative reviews will take patience and restraint, and should cause you to work hard to avoid them by doing your best to ensure your clients remain happy, or at least satisfied that you did your best for them, regardless of any results they receive.  If you were to rate yourself and your service personally, what would you give yourself?  Focus on improving your client education process with more attention on client relations and satisfaction to get the highest marks before, during and after the representation!

Disclaimer:  Interpretations of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct (ethics rules) and their applicability in this blog post are informal opinions issued pursuant to Bar Rule 4-401.  They are the personal opinions of the Assistant General Counsel co-author, and are neither a defense to any complaint nor binding on the State Disciplinary Board, the Supreme Court of Georgia or the State Bar of Georgia.

– Natalie & Bill

AVVO-type Services and the Georgia Lawyer

Have you claimed your profile? Was it correctly displayed in AVVO? Did you get the rating you think you deserved? What can you really do about that nasty review? We will attempt to work through this quandary for Georgia lawyers. As other jurisdictions have opined in various ways about the proper use and peril of services like AVVO, we felt the need to address it head on. So here goes.

Can a Georgia lawyer sign on and accept their rating? Well, of course, and many have done just that and leveraged higher ratings to boot. There are rumors that higher ratings are attained when lawyers accept and fill in their profiles, and not doing so may be at the heart of some of the concerns we hear about AVVO. Where did they get my information, and what if it’s totally wrong? We’ve heard more than once that a lawyer has never worked in a practice area their AVVO listing proclaims. Likewise, claiming to specialize in certain practice areas is not something to be taken lightly, but again there are some profiles that make these claims without the lawyer even knowing about it in some cases. So, does this now mean the lawyer can be in trouble with the State Bar?

We will talk more about “false and misleading” information later, but for starters, let’s address the use of online directory services like AVVO. As already mentioned, lawyers can use the service, and in most cases, claiming the profile may well be the way to go. Not doing so could indicate the lawyer is not in step with the times. Everyone’s online and most folks check out lawyers they’ve heard about online. Why not make sure your online presence is at its very best by making sure any information out there is correct? Once a profile has been accepted, then the lawyer must decide whether to enhance the profile through add-on services or by linking in additional content. Both tend to increase the ranking of the lawyer’s profile in searches performed using the directory. Again, there are no guarantees, but generally speaking the proactive approach to the profile listing seems to get noticed in the search algorithms used by the online services. So our advice to most lawyers is to get online and check your profile and claim it and add additional content if you are inclined to use the directory as a part of your online marketing campaign. You will just want to be sure you keep up with any content provided by the listing.

Lawyers who for whatever reason do not want to claim their profiles are likely to not be entirely pleased with their options. AVVO will not take down your listing, and we have mixed reports about being able to correct your practice areas without claiming your profile. However, if you have not been disciplined by a licensing bar, AVVO will accept a request that your “ratings not be displayed.” That strips down the profile, but practice areas, years of licensure, and evidently the ability of others to post reviews of you, remain displayed.

But what about unfavorable and inaccurate information? How’s that to be dealt with without skirting or crossing any ethical lines? There are no Georgia Supreme Court decisions or Formal Advisory Opinions addressing inaccurate information on websites like AVVO, but like a lawyer’s own website, you should consider it to be advertising and therefore subject to Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct (GRPC) Rules 7.1 (Communications concerning a Lawyer’s Services), 7.2 (Advertising) and 7.4 (Communication of Fields of Practice). There are a number of specific obligations and prohibitions in those rules, but the overarching requirement is that your communications not be false, fraudulent, deceptive or misleading. It seems unlikely that inaccurate information in an unclaimed AVVO profile would be prosecuted as an ethics violation, since the lawyer played no role in creating or publicizing it. Once you claim a profile, however, it seems obvious that you will be responsible for assuring that its content complies with the above GRPC rules. What to do about unfavorable reviews is a topic unto itself, which we will address next time.

Disclaimer:  Interpretations of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct (ethics rules) and their applicability in this blog post are informal opinions issued pursuant to Bar Rule 4-401.  They are the personal opinions of the Assistant General Counsel co-author, and are neither a defense to any complaint nor binding on the State Disciplinary Board, the Supreme Court of Georgia or the State Bar of Georgia.

-Natalie & Bill

Take Charge – What a Successful Solo and Small Firm Conference Looks Like

Well, I wasn’t in attendance this year, as I was out on a leave of absence.  Bummer!  But, if what I have heard since my return to work is any indication of what the attendees at this year’s Solo and Small Firm Institute enjoyed, this was a successful solo and small firm conference!  Because pictures can speak louder than words, here’s what you missed if you didn’t attend this year.

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From the bustling Exhibit Hall area to the sometimes standing-room only sessions, attendees are still talking to me about this year’s conference and telling me they are looking forward to attending next year.  You can also check out  the conference as it was featured in the Daily Report, here.

With help from the General Practice and Trial Section and other key sponsors, the Law Practice Management Program and the event’s Chair, Kathleen Womack, were able to showcase presentations from national experts – Sharon Nelson, John Simek and James “Jim” Calloway; and our very own high-profile local experts on all things solo and small firm practice! You can see all of the sessions presented and wonderful presenters listed here.  Thanks everyone for all of your dedication and hard work!

We can’t wait for you to join us next year!  Save the date. July 14th & 15th, 2017!

– Natalie