Gone are the days of inconspicuous client relations. Today’s consumer can publicly critique every company or professional – including attorneys – online. How you respond to digital detractors can either land you in trouble, or help restore your reputation.

By John Browning, Trial Lawyer

Ah, the good old days; when dealing with an irate client meant fielding a few angry phone calls or responding to a curt letter informing you that your services were no longer needed. You moved on, presumably the client moved on, and that was usually the end of it. But in today’s digital age, where everyone is just keystrokes away from airing their grievances with the world, comments posted to lawyer ratings sites like Avvo.com – or even consumer complaint sites like Yelp.com, or RipoffReport.com – can live online forever and pop up in response to Internet searches for your name. As with any criticism, there’s a right way and a wrong way to respond – and the wrong way can land you in front of the disciplinary board.

Digital Defensiveness Can Lead To Trouble

One Chicago employment attorney learned this lesson the hard way in January 2014, when she received a reprimand from the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission for revealing a client’s confidential information in a public forum. The Chicago attorney had represented a former American Airlines flight attendant during late 2012 and early 2013 in an unsuccessful quest for unemployment benefits (the client had been terminated for allegedly assaulting a fellow flight attendant during a flight). After firing his attorney, the disgruntled client posted a review of the lawyer on the attorney review site Avvo.com. In the post, the client expressed his dissatisfaction bluntly, claiming that his former attorney “only wants your money,” that her assurances of being on a client’s side were “a huge lie,” and that she took his money despite “knowing full well a certain law in Illinois would not let me collect unemployment.” Within two days of the negative comments, the attorney contacted her former client by email, requesting that he remove the post; the client refused to do so unless he received a copy of his file, and a full refund of the $1,500 fee he had paid.

Sometime in the next two months, Avvo removed the Chicago man’s posting from its online reviews of the attorney. But on April 10, 2013, the former client posted a second negative review of her on Avvo.com. This time, the attorney responded by posting a reply the next day on the site. In the reply, she called the allegations “simply false,” said that he didn’t “reveal all the facts of his situation” during their client meetings, and stated: “I feel badly for him but his own actions in beating up a female coworker are what caused the consequences he is now so upset about.” According to the Illinois disciplinary authorities, it was this online revelation of information obtained from her client that violated the Rules of Professional Conduct, as well as the fact that her posting was “designed to intimidate and harass the former client and keep him from posting additional information about her on the Avvo website,” which constituted another violation of professional conduct rules, as well as conduct that tends to “bring the courts or the legal profession into disrepute.”

In a similar situation, a Georgia attorney’s petition for lesser sanction of voluntary discipline was rejected by the state’s disciplinary authorities. According to In re: Skinner, after being fired and replaced by new counsel, the lawyer responded to negative reviews “on consumer websites” written by the former client by posting “personal and confidential information about the client that the attorney had gained in her professional relationship with the client.” The court didn’t go into detail about the exact comments posted, however, and specifically noted that the record didn’t reflect “the actual or potential harm to the client as a result of the disclosures.” And in an unpublished 2013 California opinion, Gwire v Bloomberg, a disgruntled former client anonymously posted comments about a California lawyer on ComplaintsBoard.com, accusing the attorney of committing “a horrific fraud” and including a “partial summary of the attorney’s incredibly unethical history.” The attorney responded with a post calling his former client “unreliable,” “a proven liar,” “mentally unbalanced,” and made references to his divorce file and previous business failures. When the California attorney sued his former client for defamation and trade libel, the client tried to have the lawsuit dismissed under California’s Anti-SLAPP statute. While the trial court allowed the defamation claims to go forward (and was affirmed by the appellate court), the appropriateness of the California attorney’s response to the online remarks wasn’t raised as an issue on appeal.

An All-Time Low: Planting Fake Reviews

Of course, there is an even more disturbing way for an attorney to get into trouble over reviews on websites: not by revealing confidential client information, but by posting fake or fabricated content, both negative and positive (false testimonials). In 2013, an attorney was publicly reprimanded by the Minnesota Supreme Court for “falsely posing as a former client of opposing counsel and posting a negative review on a website.” In Dallas,Texas, a pending lawsuit brought by one law firm accuses a rival firm of a campaign of false postings while posing as unhappy ex-clients. And in August 2013, Yelp took the extreme step of suing a San Diego bankruptcy firm for allegedly “gaming the system” through the “planting of fake reviews intended to sway potential clients with false testimonials.”

Responding Positively To Negative Reviews

So what can you do when faced with negative online reviews? Sure, suing for defamation is an option, as one Nevada family lawyer did when the ex-husband of a woman he had represented published nasty comments about him on Facebook. But most of what’s said in an online review is likely to be non-defamatory because it is opinion and/or protected free speech. Moreover, as the cautionary tales discussed here illustrate, posting a rebuttal that gets too specific and breaches attorney-client confidentiality can result in a trip to the disciplinary board. The best approach may be that advocated by Josh King, general counsel of Avvo, who calls negative commentary “a golden marketing opportunity.” He says, “By posting a professional, meaningful response to negative commentary, an attorney sends a powerful message to any readers of that review. Done correctly, such a message communicates responsiveness, attention to feedback, and strength of character. The trick is to not get defensive, petty, or feel the need to directly refute what you perceive is wrong with the review.”

John G. Browning is the founding partner of the Dallas, TX office of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, where he handles civil litigation in state and federal courts. He is the author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Social Networking: Understanding Social Media’s Impact on the Law (Aspatore Books, 2010), and is considered a leading authority on the topic. His firm website is www.lbbslaw.com.