By Cliff Ennico
“I started a solo law practice last year. As part of my marketing efforts, I encourage my clients to post positive reviews on their websites and social media pages.
“Well, I just found out that a client posted a highly negative review of me on Avvo.com.” (Note: Avvo is an online review site — similar to Yelp — where people can review lawyers and other legal professionals.) “I was shocked. Not only did the client not warn me he was going to do this, but he told me to my face he liked the job I did and would say nothing but positive things about me.
“Part of me wants to just ignore this. Another part of me wants to respond and tell the truth about what happened. And all of me wants to strangle this client. What should I do?”
First of all, I would advise against strangulation — go online and search “(your state) first degree murder” and you will see why.
Few things in a business owner’s life burn your breakfast like a negative review, especially where (like here) it comes out of the blue.
You can always sue the person for defamation or libel. This means the person intentionally published a false and misleading statement of fact about you with the goal of hurting you and your practice. It will cost you tons of time and money, however, and there’s no guarantee you will win. If a judge finds that the person was merely expressing an opinion, you will probably lose. The last time I looked, people are entitled to their opinions in the U.S.
You will not be able to sue the website where this review appeared. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 gives website owners extremely broad protection from defamation lawsuits involving content posted by other people. A number of lawsuits (mostly involving dentists, for some reason) have tried to force websites to delete negative reviews from dissatisfied clients, but almost all have failed because of Section 230.
You could ignore the review altogether, but think carefully before you do. Lots of people check online reviews before hiring professionals, and if they know about Avvo, they will look there. Here’s Cliff Ennico’s rule: If the review looks like an incoherent rant posted by someone who was raging drunk at 4 o’clock in the morning, with misspelled words, bad grammar and few solid facts that would indicate you didn’t do your job, ignore the review because most people won’t take the review seriously.
Not sure if a review falls into this category? Try reading the review out loud. If you come out sounding like Boris Badenov from the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons, you probably shouldn’t respond. Responding to such a review only adds legitimacy to the person who posted it.
If a reasonable person is likely to take the review seriously, then you probably will need to respond to it. But you have to be extremely careful, because you are a lawyer. Lawyers cannot disclose confidential information about their clients (although clients are free to disclose whatever they like). If your respond to this review with a highly detailed explanation of “what really happened,” the client might be able to sue you (or go after your license) for disclosing confidential information.
You also want to be careful to show the world that you are a clear, calm, level-headed professional. Getting involved in a tit-for-tat argument with a client never ends well — even if you technically win, people will avoid you for fear you will treat them the same way if they have a legitimate complaint.
Here’s one way you might respond to the review: “I was extremely surprised to read your review below, as you told me in our last phone conversation you liked the work I did for you. This is the first I’ve heard you were not satisfied with my services, and I’m really sorry you feel this way. Please call me at your earliest convenience, as I’m happy to do anything I can, without charge, to address your concerns. Please do not respond with a posting to this site, as you know I cannot ethically disclose details of our lawyer-client relationship that must be kept confidential and are protected by the attorney-client privilege.”
By responding this way, you’ve done several good things. First, you’ve shown the world you are a responsible attorney who cares deeply about client satisfaction. Secondly, by saying, “This is the first I’ve heard of this,” you suggest that the reviewer did not give you the chance to make the situation right before posting the review, which puts him in a negative light. Lastly, by pointing out your obligation of confidentiality, you are telling the world why you cannot defend yourself in a way that puts you squarely on the high ground.
If the reviewer responds to this message online, reply with the short statement: “Per my previous posting, please call me, as I am not ethically permitted to have this conversation online.”
Then forget about it, treat yourself to a brandy and get on with your practice. You’ve done the best you can do.
Cliff Ennico (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series “Money Hunt.”
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