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