Why you probably shouldn’t respond to negative online reviews

Responding to negative law firm reviewsOnline 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 online reviews. Of course, obtaining positive online reviews is mostly about satisfying clients. But there are tangible things a law firm can do to help ease the process of getting positive online reviews from happy clients.

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 circumstances where the client had unreasonable expectations that just could not be managed effectively as hard as the lawyer or law firm tried.

Certainly as well, 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 as well. The webpages and directories where clients can leave negative online reviews is virtually endless today. 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 saying that, lawyers and law firms have duties of confidentiality and privilege. Even where a client or former client is unfairly portraying a lawyer or a law firm, lawyers and law firms still cannot breach confidentiality and privilege by 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. They 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 that might not cross the line as well. 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 they line is, they may opt not respond at all.

One has to wonder as well whether a general response like the one outlined in Pennsylvania is even worth posting when it is so general. Would an individual looking to hire a law firm even be persuaded by such a general response? The reality is they probably will not. Thus, the better approach is usually just to focus on getting positive reviews so that they outweigh the negative ones.

It also goes without saying, but it certainly makes sense to contact upset former clients privately, in a forum that is not online, to discuss their concerns.  This is particularly true where the former client is reasonable.

But by not responding online, a lawyer cannot get in any trouble. But by responding online, and over-divulging, the lawyer or law firm might end up creating a valid client complaint where there was no valid one before. There are definitely more and more reported instances of lawyers getting in trouble with disciplinary authorities for crossing the line. Thus, think twice before responding online and be very careful, if you do, by making sure you don’t cross any lines.

If you have any thoughts, feel free to share them below.

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