In the June/July 2020 issue of the ABA Journal, Cynthia Sharp asks me about how attorneys can best respond to negative online reviews in “Trashed by Clients Online? Ethically responding to negative reviews,” a subject that I’ve discussed with many attorneys and clients over the years.
It is probably the topic that brings me the most questions during my marketing ethics-related CLE programs. In a recent webinar for the American Legal Institute (ALI), Ethically Navigating the Three Rs: Lawyer Ratings, Rankings, and Reviews, I focus solely on this area as it relates to attorney advertising. And I’ve written about the subject matter multiple times in my ABA Law Practice magazine column as well. Mostly, because unlike many areas of attorney marketing ethics, this one is quite “real” to many lawyers that have been bitten by disgruntled former clients, or unhappy ex-employees, shady competitors or just someone that plain doesn’t like you. The combustible mix of not being able to opt-out of the review process and the sheer fact that this stuff can be highly visible in your online portfolio can be deadly. And many attorneys have responded poorly—and violated ethics rules in the process.
The power of the online review—on Google, Yelp, Facebook, or numerous sites that are legal-specific—has grown exponentially in recent years. Early on, the issues often stemmed from reviews on legal site Avvo (which rewarded attorneys for having reviews in their profiles), and Yelp—the initial home of choice for the disgruntled…there is nothing like being ripped by a Yelper. Facebook could be especially critical to the consumer-facing law practice. But it was really the elevation of reviews on Google that increased the potential for reward and damage. If you think about the evolution of Google in the online marketplace—from sponsored results to adwords; SEO spends on organic results, local/mapped searching and various efforts at developing a social media component (mostly without success), the incorporation of Google Reviews and the related visibility in a search result puts a spotlight on them for the end-user and adds another concern for reputation management of your online portfolio.
The need for quantity of reviews has led to the launch of many businesses that work to get those reviews up and running with minimal effort by the lawyer and client. Companies like Podium offer “interaction management.” Some less reputable folks help get you five-star reviews while jettisoning the negative (or, what I call—the ultimate in “deceptive and misleading—at best). Clients have sued lawyers for misleading them with reviews, or even worse, violating attorney-client confidences when responding (to the negative). In a great example of morphing online and traditional marketing platforms, some law firms have taken to touting these reviews on billboards and other media-based advertising.
In the 20+ years I’ve dealt with law marketing ethics and related (state bar) compliance issues, there are areas where I’ve ensured some clients stay within the boundaries of the relevant entities policing them while perhaps acknowledging that the chances of an issue arising are extremely rare. But when it comes to the world of reviews, it is harder to put the genie back in the bottle—but mostly, that you don’t have control over participation and involvement. So, if you are on the wrong end of a negative online review, take a breath and tread carefully.