There’s no doubt that online reviews may influence prospective clients. While savvy consumers may be able to discern between reviews posted by legitimately unhappy consumers and those that may be unfairly retaliatory, your online reputation is highly valuable and worth protecting. Since it may be unlikely that negative reviews will be removed (even if untrue), it is worth your consideration to think about how to handle such an event.
Especially for attorneys, responding to negative online reviews should be treated like defusing a bomb. Just as careful and precise handling is necessary to prevent a catastrophic explosion, responding to criticism requires a delicate touch, the right timing, and essential skills. By implementing these three recommendations, we hope to prepare you to confront such a situation appropriately:
1. Have a plan.
A negative online review is commonplace enough that every law firm, no matter the size, should anticipate it as a modern reality. We suggest that you develop an Incident Response Plan that encompasses both crisis communication and security breach management. An Incident Response Plan should be reviewed periodically and referred to when needed. The Plan should contain your firm’s policies and procedures when a crisis or security breach occurs, such as:
- Negative public relations event (e.g., bad newspaper story)
- Data breach of any nature (firm bank account, client files, employee payroll records, etc.)
- Irate or disgruntled individual contacting attorneys or firm staff
- Disciplinary inquiry or lawsuit against an attorney or the firm
An Incident Response Plan should identify the purpose, scope, and use of the Plan. The Plan should also include identification of critical incident scenarios that would necessitate both internal and external responses, along with the team members necessary to implement those responses and other stakeholders and their roles. To do this, consider your objectives: protecting the safety, assets, reputation, and integrity of clients and attorneys. Finally, establish within the Plan professional constraints specifically including your duties under Rules of Professional Conduct to protect client confidentiality and client interests.
For more on developing, testing, and utilizing an Incident Response Plan, refer to the Cyber Toolbox available to OBLIC Policyholders. Contact Loss Prevention for the password to access this valuable tool.
2. Remain calm and professional.
It’s an understatement to say that reading something negative about yourself online can feel uncomfortable, but staying calm and responding professionally are critical. What you say and how you say it will be your tools to deescalate negative emotions, while managing how the comment appears to third parties and adhering to the Rules of Professional Conduct.
Take time to cool off, collect necessary information, and remember to stick to the developed Incident Response Plan. As mentioned above, the Plan should set out the steps you take after discovering a negative online comment, assessing and drafting a response, and having it reviewed by trusted colleagues. It may be prudent to take advantage of an ethics consultation.
3. Neutralize or minimize.
Potential clients, friends and relatives of clients, opposing attorneys, and others often read both negative and positive reviews. How you handle criticism can influence their perception of you and your firm.
It’s important to note that it is often recommended that attorneys not respond at all to negative online posts. If you choose to respond, the best response may be that your ethical obligations preclude your response and invite the unhappy commenter to contact your office to discuss further. In some circumstances, by showing that you are willing to address issues professionally and constructively, you may be able to minimize or even neutralize the negative review’s impact. You want any response to convey that you care about your ethical responsibilities, relationships with clients, and your staff.
Responses to negative comments that blame the poster or share information about the poster will not minimize the damage. To the contrary, comments shifting blame to the client, revealing information about them to explain an outcome, or embarrassing a client or former client just added heat to an already volatile situation. The exception to Rule 1.6 that may allow an attorney to disclose confidential information in order to establish a defense to allegations by clients has not historically applied to responding to online criticism. However, your thoughtful planning, consideration of your ethical duties, and good client relationship management can prevent and minimize an explosive situation.
After reviewing this guidance and considering your business’ needs, an ethics consultation might be best used to review oversight policies, client disclosure language, or measures in place to ensure confidentiality and data protection. Any response posted by the lawyer will be scrutinized by others, including disciplinary counsel or an attorney pursuing a legal malpractice action.
For more on this subject, see the On Demand CLE: How to Deal with a Negative Review without Getting in Trouble presented by ethics attorney Alvin Mathews for the Ohio Bar, available now through December 31, 2023.
Related articles from OBLIC:
October 12, 2023: New Ohio Opinions including guidance on paying bonuses to staff for positive online reviews.
As always, don’t hesitate to reach out to OBLIC’s Loss Prevention team with any questions. We’re here to help!
|Gretchen K. Mote, Esq.
Director of Loss Prevention
Ohio Bar Liability Insurance Co.
|Merisa K. Bowers, Esq.
Loss Prevention Counsel
Ohio Bar Liability Insurance Co.
This information is made available solely for loss prevention purposes, which may include claim prevention techniques designed to minimize the likelihood of incurring a claim for legal malpractice. This information does not establish, report, or create the standard of care for attorneys. The material is not a complete analysis of the topic and should not be construed as providing legal advice. Please conduct your own appropriate legal research in this area. If you have questions about this email’s content and are an OBLIC policyholder, please contact us using the information above.