Online reviews are becoming increasingly important for law firms. For any law firm that gains a significant portion of your of their business online, they cannot just ignore the importance of online reviews. Law firms that gain business online have to find a way to encourage positive reviews. There are tangible things a law firm can do to help ease the process of getting positive online reviews from happy clients. Unfortunately, sometimes there are people who post negative reviews online.
At the same time, negative online reviews are going to happen from time to time. The reality is no lawyer or law firm can make every client happy as hard as they might try. There might just be circumstances where the client is not happy. There might be times when the client had unreasonable expectations that just could not be managed effectively.
In particular areas of the law, it might be more likely for clients to leave negative online reviews. Certain areas of law just lead to clients walking away feeling unsatisfied from time to time. It is very easy for a client or former client to leave a negative online review. The webpages and directories where clients can leave negative online reviews are virtually endless. Many webpages and directories allow online reviews because it drives traffic.
Many lawyers, however, are tempted to substantively respond to the negative online reviews online. The temptation is understandable where the review is unfair, false or it distorts the facts of what happened.
But having said that, lawyers and law firms have duties of confidentiality and privilege. Even when a client or former client is unfairly portraying a lawyer or a law firm, lawyers and law firms cannot breach confidentiality and privilege if responding in any substantive way.
The Pennsylvania Bar Association issued an interesting ethical option that talks about the dilemmas for lawyers in responding to negative online reviews. The reference in particular that any response should be “proportional and restrained.” They even provide a model answer that lawyers might think about giving in response to a negative online review:
“A lawyer’s duty to keep client confidences has few exceptions and in an abundance of caution, I do not feel at liberty to respond in a point-by-point fashion in this forum. Suffice it to say that I do not believe that the post presents a fair and accurate picture of the events.”
Certainly, lawyers and law firms could come up with other very general responses that they could give to a negative online review. But, practically speaking, lawyers must be very careful if they opt to respond to a negative online review. If a law firm or lawyer is not sure they know where the line is, it is best to ask for advice from a supervisor.
One can ask whether a general response like the one outlined in Pennsylvania is even worth posting when it is so general. Would an individual look hire a law firm even be persuaded by such a general response? We can’t know for sure, and it should be at the discretion of law firm management what the best approach is. To negate the effect of negative reviews, you should encourage your staff to push for more positive reviews online.
It also goes without saying, but it makes sense to also contact upset former clients privately, in a forum that is not online, to discuss their concerns.
By not responding online, a lawyer could avoid a potential conflict with a former client. However, it may also seem as if the law firm does not care. The best advice is to be very careful when responding to reviews. Making sure not to cross any lines with former clients and keep it professional.
If you have any thoughts, feel free to share them below.