It’s entirely normal for a negative review to spark an emotional response; after all, you care deeply about your law firm, and a negative review reflects poorly on your services.
However, there are many reasons — both ethical and professional — that you should be cautious when responding to negative online reviews from former clients. We get into them below and discuss key points for replying to internet reviews of your law firm.
Attorney Ethics Rules and Responding to Reviews
Attorney ethics may seem like an odd place to start a post about responding to negative reviews. But did you know that an improper response to a client review can violate your state’s attorney ethics rules?
ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.9(c) generally prohibits lawyers from revealing information related to the representation of a former client. Likewise, ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6(a) prohibits attorneys from disclosing information relating to the representation of a client unless:
- The client gives informed consent
- The disclosure is necessary to carry out the representation
- The disclosure meets one of the exceptions of 1.6(b).
Most states have adopted both of these rules in some form. To be sure, replying to a client’s negative online review is not required to carry out the representation. Moreover, a client will likely not provide informed consent for you to disclose information about their case just so you can reply to their negative review.
No exception in 1.6(b) permits an attorney to disclose confidential information while responding to a former client’s review. The Self-Defense Exception of 1.6(b)(6) comes closest, but this allows lawyers to disclose confidential client information to defend themselves against legal claims and disciplinary charges — not negative online reviews.
So, the ethics rules provide no grounds for you to post a response that reveals private or embarrassing information about your client.
Client reviews can get personal. But clients aren’t subject to ethics rules.
Lawyers should not be goaded into revealing private information about a client or their case to attack or defend themselves from a negative reviewer.
Attorneys have been disciplined for inappropriate replies to critical online reviews.
In People v. James C. Underhill, Jr., The Colorado Supreme Court’s Office of the Presiding Disciplinary Judge suspended an attorney for responding to negative internet postings from clients by “disclosing highly sensitive and confidential information gleaned from attorney-client discussions.”
In The Matter of: Betty Tsamis, an Illinois Disciplinary Commission Hearing Board sanctioned an attorney for her response to a negative review on Avvo. The lawyer stated, “I dislike it very much when my clients lose . . . but his own actions in beating up a female co-worker are what caused the consequences he is now so upset about.”
In The Matter of Margrett A. Skinner, The State Bar of Georgia disciplined an attorney who responded to a client’s negative reviews by posting a response that included confidential information, such as:
- The client’s name
- The client’s employer
- How much the client paid the attorney
- The county where the attorney had filed the client’s divorce pleadings
The attorney received a public reprimand. These cases highlight the importance of having an appropriate, measured response to client reviews.
What can you say (ethically) in response to a negative online review?
Many State Bar Ethics Committees have adopted rules permitting lawyers to post a “proportional and restrained” response to negative internet reviews. However, the response may not contain confidential information about the client.
Therefore, when responding to a client review, you should respond in a general way, stating that you disagree with the client’s statements.
The Florida Bar has provided an example of a “proportionate and restrained response.”
As an attorney, I am constrained by the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar from responding in detail, but I will simply state that it is my belief that the [comments/post] present neither a fair nor accurate picture of what occurred and I believe that the [comments/post] [is/are] false.
If this response is too clunky, use your judgment to come up with your own reply. Assess whether it’s proportional and restrained. Ask yourself what your State Bar or another disciplinary authority will think of the response.
If you have any doubts about whether you should post the reply, maybe you should hold off.
Four Important Tips for Responding to Client Reviews Professionally
We’ve discussed how to comply with the ethics rules when crafting a response to a client review. But, we have some additional tips for creating professional responses to unfavorable client reviews.
1. Don’t Respond Impulsively — Think Out Your Reply
Responding impulsively to a client review is a major no-no. A response driven by emotion can come across as angry, even if it doesn’t appear that way to you. Such a response might satisfy your anger at the negative review, but it won’t do your law firm any favors.
Other potential clients reading your reviews might even be more inclined to believe the negative review if they see a spiteful response.
Instead, take some time to think through your reply to the negative review. Give yourself space to process the review and any emotions that arise from it. Think about how you can maintain a professional tone in your response. Try to recognize where the person is coming from; do your best to be as objective as possible in your reply.
An ideal response should come across as empathetic, genuine, and understanding.
Of course, you’ll want your response to address the reviewer’s concerns, but you want to ensure that you strike the right tone.
2. Ask a Colleague or Staff Member to Review Your Reply
Your reply may seem perfect to you. You may feel you come across as level-headed, address the reviewer’s concerns, and remain professional throughout your response. However, we’re not always the best judges of our own thoughts, words, and actions — a problem called confirmation bias, among other things.
Having another set of eyes look at your response before submitting it could save you from sending an unprofessional or unethical response to a client review. At the very least, it can improve the quality of your reply. Asking someone else to review your reply can give insight into how potential clients will perceive your response before you submit it.
3. Be Responsive to All Reviewers — Good and Bad
Whether you receive a positive or negative review, you should respond to the reviewer and thank them for their feedback. If you receive positive feedback, thank the reviewer for their time.
This shows that you’re appreciative and boosts your online reputation.
It may be tempting to ignore negative comments, but engaging with your former client can show empathy, responsiveness, and responsibility.
You should respond to any concerns by politely addressing the issues raised. Determine what you can do to make things right – but don’t engage in a back-and-forth dialogue. If the negative reviewer continues the conversation, take it offline and try to resolve it.
As mentioned above, never disclose confidential information about the reviewer or case, and keep things civil and professional.
4. Remember Who You’re Actually Responding To
We touched on this tangentially in previous sections. But the topic deserves further exploration. When you reply to a review, you’re not responding to the person who reviewed you. You’re responding to the third-party reading the review.
Therefore, you should pretend that the bad review and your response are an exchange in front of a third party.
You are writing the response for the benefit of the person who is considering hiring you.
As an attorney, you’re in a position of authority. If you respond harshly to a negative review, a potential client might perceive you as a bully.
They might think you don’t allow clients to say what they really think about your law firm, or that you don’t care that one of your clients had a bad experience with your firm. These things may prevent the prospective client from hiring you.
Your best bet is to reframe the conversation in a manner that puts you in a better light.
I’m sorry to hear that you did not have a good experience with our firm. At Smith Law Firm, we strive to give each client an amazing experience as evidenced by our 200 five-star reviews. We would appreciate the opportunity to discuss this matter with you and address any concerns. Please feel free to call our office at 555-1212 and ask for me directly, Bob Smith. Thank you again for your feedback.
This response does a couple of things. It expresses sympathy for the client’s experience. It undercuts the negative review by highlighting how many positive reviews you have. It shows you are approachable and want to resolve the client’s concerns.
Keep in mind, you may not win the client over. They may not take you up on your invitation for a phone conversation. They may post petty responses to your reply. But that says more about them than you. Prospective clients will realize that, too.
5. Learn How to Remove Inappropriate or Fraudulent Reviews on Different Platforms
You should also study the review policies on the various platforms where you have reviews. You may be able to remove negative reviews from certain platforms. We go into a few of the more popular review sites below.
Google only allows you to remove reviews that violate its policies. You can’t request a removal simply because you disagree with or dislike it.
A review violates Google’s policies if it contains:
- Hate speech
- Offensive content
- Personal information
- Deceptive content, including fake reviews, impersonation, misinformation, or misrepresentation
- Obscenity or profanity
- Sexually explicit content
- Violence and gore
- Dangerous, illegal, or terrorist content
- Content that puts children at risk
- Off-topic content
- Content posted for advertising or solicitation purposes
- Repetitive or gibberish content
To seek the removal of an inappropriate review, you can report it and flag it as inappropriate. It may take several days for Google to assess the review and evaluate whether it should be taken down.
Avvo allows you to dispute a negative review if you think it’s fraudulent. If you notify Avvo, they’ll contact the reviewer to confirm whether they were an actual client of yours and allow them to edit or delete their review.
You can also post a response to the review to demonstrate your professionalism and empathy as an attorney.
You can report reviews on Facebook by using the “Report” link. Whether you received abusive content on your profile, timeline, or a review, Facebook makes it easy to report the behavior.
LawRank Can Help You Solicit and Manage Client Reviews for your Law Firm
Online reviews are critical for digital marketing. Over 95% of consumers read reviews before purchasing a product. Positive reviews from former clients can help you appear more trustworthy to others in need of legal services. Even negative reviews can help improve your credibility — if you respond in the right way.
However, an insufficient number of reviews can make you seem like an unknown quantity and chase prospective clients off before they really have a chance to learn more about your skills and experience. But how do you go about getting reviews? And from where?
At LawRank, we help attorneys and law firms increase their online visibility and obtain top rankings on SERPS. Our lawyer SEO experts manage all aspects of digital marketing, including your firm’s online platforms and reviews.
Contact us for a free consultation and learn more about our track record of ranking law firms on the first page of Google for competitive keywords in competitive markets.