by Anne M. Rudolph
Can A Lawyer Respond to a Negative Online Review?
Exercise caution and restraint.
The business of being a lawyer is not unlike other businesses in the sense that we rely on satisfied customers (clients) to establish, build and maintain a successful practice. Word of mouth and recommendations are an integral part of that process. In the modern age, online review sites have become ubiquitous. Avvo, Google, Martindale-Hubbell, and Yelp, are some of the most well-known on which someone can post a review of a lawyer’s services.
A reviewer does not have to be a client or a former client, however, that is primarily who takes the time to write a review. Like any businessperson, lawyers welcome a positive review from a happy customer. However, when a client or a former client posts a negative review, a lawyer is not able to respond to that negative review in the same manner as someone in another business.
A lawyer must comply with the duties of confidentiality and loyalty which prohibit a lawyer from revealing a client or former client’s confidential information except in extremely limited circumstances. (B&P §6068(e); Rule 1.6 of the Rules of Professional Conduct; LACBA Opinion No. 525 (2012).) Responding to a negative online review, even one that contains false information, is not one of the exceptions permitting a lawyer to reveal a client or former client’s confidential information. And, these duties to protect the client’s confidential information apply even if the person posting is not the client or former client.
While it is often hard to turn the other cheek when one is the victim of false allegations or when one is painted in a bad light by an incomplete version of events, sometimes no response is the best option. A response may only make a situation worse. The client or former client may decide to defend the negative review by increasing the complaints or even pursuing a malpractice case. Or, a lawyer may find that their response subjects them to an ethics complaint or discipline.
If a lawyer does wish to respond to a negative online review, how can a lawyer respond in an ethically permissible way? Los Angeles County Bar Association Opinion No. 525, provides sound guidance. A response is permitted if the lawyer meets the following criteria:
- A response does not disclose confidential information;
- The response does not injure the client or former client in a matter involving the representation or former representation; and
- The response is proportionate and restrained.
First and foremost, a lawyer should not go on the offense or be aggressive. If the lawyer cannot meaningfully respond without revealing a client or former client’s confidential information, then the lawyer can state simply that what the reviewer has posted is false but that ethical obligations prevent further explanation and details.
The bottom line is that a lawyer should give serious consideration before acting and exercise restraint and common sense if they choose to respond to a negative online review.
Anne M. Rudolph – June 17, 2022