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The Magazine of Illinois Lawyers

July 2018Volume 106Number 7Page 50

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Ethics

Think Twice Before Responding to Negative Online Reviews

What do you do when a negative review of your practice is posted online? Tread carefully. And be mindful of your ethical obligations.

Ethics image

It's hard to remember a time when we did not have access to the internet, let alone from our phones. Many millennials may not remember such a time at all. Before the internet, to find a recommended business or service provider, you'd rely on friends and family for a handful of suggestions. Now, a quick internet search can yield hundreds-even thousands-of reviews.

Ninety-two percent of consumers read reviews to determine the quality of a local business. And 80 percent of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations (see https://go.bbb.org/2KPz6Xi).

Consumers turn to the internet when searching specifically for legal services. And online reviews can have an immediate and widespread impact on a lawyer's business. Yelp, Google, and Avvo have emerged as the front runners of law firm reviews. Of course, ISBA provides free public access to its Illinois Lawyer Finder directory and Lawyer Referral Service (see https://bit.ly/2HjT7mU). According to a 2012 study, 58 million consumers in the United States sought a lawyer the previous year. Of those, 76 percent used online resources in their search (see https://bit.ly/2J7LtAV).

Good reviews can translate into cheap and effective advertising for lawyers. When using online sources, 57 percent of surveyed consumers read online ratings and reviews of a lawyer or firm. Twenty-eight percent of these consumers found ratings to be extremely influential. Only three percent said ratings and reviews had little to no influence.

What if a customer leaves a negative review of your firm? The natural reaction is to respond to the comment and defend yourself and your firm. After all, our professional instinct is to argue and defend. But, before you engage with an individual who leaves a poor review, consider the ethical implications of your actions.

Responding to negative reviews

If you choose to respond to client reviews, be mindful of Illinois Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6, which covers confidentiality, and Rule 1.9 regarding duties to former clients. Rule 1.6 specifically states that "a lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent, the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation, or the disclosure is permitted by paragraph (b) or required by paragraph (c)."

Some lawyers who have attempted to reply to poor reviews revealed confidential information in the process. See In re M.S., 740 S.E.2d 171 (Ga. 2013) (reprimand); In re B.T., Comm'n File No. 2013PR00095 (Ill. 2013) (reprimand). In In re B.T., the Illinois lawyer at issue received a negative review on Avvo from a client who hired her to represent him in an unemployment matter. When the client posted a negative review, B.T. replied by saying: "I dislike it very much when my clients lose, but I cannot invent positive facts for clients when they are not there. I feel badly for him, but his own actions in beating up a female co-worker are what caused the consequences he is now so upset about."

B.T. argued that her response was covered under Rule 1.6(b)(5), which allows for an exception to confidentiality and states that "a lawyer may reveal information relating to the representation of a client to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary: (5) to establish a claim or defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client, to establish a defense to a criminal charge or civil claim against the lawyer based upon conduct in which the lawyer was involved, or to respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer's representation of the client." B.T.'s defense was rejected and she was disciplined.

Responding to a review also can cause a lawyer to run afoul of Rule 1.9(c). That section prevents a lawyer from using information relating to the representation of a former client to the disadvantage of the former client. Just as B.T. should not have revealed that her client struck a former co-worker, you should not reveal any specific information about your former client or the representation. Lawyers are bound by client confidentiality responsibilities even regarding the dissemination of information that already is public.

Stay positive

What, then, can you do when you receive a negative review?

While Yelp offers reviews for many types of businesses, it does not rely on the Rules of Professional Conduct. However, Yelp does offer suggestions. According to Yelp, users are 33 percent more likely to upgrade an unfavorable review if you respond with a personalized message within a day (see https://bit.ly/2lUHJIm).

Many internet review sites have their own restrictions. Most prohibit reviews based on political or social viewpoints or claims unrelated to the product or service terms. It is up to you to stay within those boundaries, too.

Keep these rules in mind if you ever get an unfavorable review. It is better to let your ego take a hit than to impulsively respond and put your career and license in jeopardy.

Bailey Felts
BaIley E. Felts is assistant counsel for the ISBA.

bfelts@isba.org