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How should lawyers respond to negative online reviews?

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Back in the far, far distant past – namely, this past Spring – we looked at the pros and cons of business owners suing customers who posted venomous reviews of their enterprises on Yelp.

Now the “negative chickens” have come home to roost, if you will, with the Wall Street Journal saying that lawyers are increasingly responding to, and sometimes even suing, disgruntled clients for expressing said disgruntled sentiments on the site.

Angry clients of lawyers are unlike those who have a bad experience with, say, a dry cleaner.

After all, it’s one thing if your trousers weren’t ready on time, or the stain on your sports jacket wasn’t removed. But if you’re already fuming about being a victim of injustice, and also believe your attorney botched your case while billing you thousands of dollars in fees to boot, well, that’s a formula for hyperbolic ranting.

So the bad “lawyer” reviews tend to be very, very, very bad.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to gauge the accuracy of such reviews. It’s pretty cut-and-dry whether a mechanic is competent; namely, did he fix your car? With an attorney, there are a lot of “x” factors involved (for starters, were you, in fact, guilty?) and whether the client’s expectations were realistic, given all the vagaries and niceties of the legal system.

For these reasons, it never occurred to me to consult Yelp when I needed legal representation.

I wasn’t even sure what a positive lawyer review would look like (“My divorce attorney was so great, I can’t wait to get divorced AGAIN!” / “My wife got NOTHING! NOTHING! BWAAA-HAHAHAHA!”). Or, for that matter, a negative one. (“OK, I murdered three people in cold blood, but it was my first offense. My lawyer didn’t even try getting me off with a warning.”)

So I decided to check it out myself.

The first thing that’s evident is that most Yelp “attorney” reviews are either all (5 stars) or nothing (0 or 1 star). Yelpers either herald their attorneys as a gods or magicians, or put a curse on them and their families for generations to come. Not coincidentally, these ratings generally hinge upon their case outcomes.

The second thing is that while Yelp only posts “Recommended” reviews, which it judges by believability and other factors and which typically account for 80 percent of all reviews received. However, many lawyers have a much higher percentage of “non-recommended” reviews filtered out, in some cases even outnumbering the recommended ones, which suggests some hanky-panky in the form of soliciting fake reviews, either on the part of the attorney or the opposing side.

Some of the most exultant paeans of praise were directed at lawyers by clients who got off after being ticketed with DUIs and speeding violations. One culprit, still in graduate school, lauded his lawyer for getting him out of “multiple” speeding tickets, and plenty of habitual DUI offenders were equally grateful. So there are some terrific lawyers out there vis a vis poking holes in these infractions. However, reading these in my other capacity, as a pedestrian and motor vehicle operator, I found these routine dismissals rather sobering and more than a little frightening.

As far as attorney responses to online negative reviews go, they tended to fall into five general categories, with varying results:

  1. Argumentative: One attorney defended himself against a reviewer’s charge by going into details of the case. This led to the reviewer angrily accusing the attorney of breaching attorney-client privilege. The Wall Street Journal reported that earlier this year, a Chicago employment attorney was reprimanded by a state attorney disciplinary board for doing something similar.
  2. Quashing attempt: One attorney offered a complainant a $200 refund if he expunged the review in which he complained that the attorney charged him $1,000 for doing “nothing.” This backfired, as the reviewer saw this as a cheap ploy to buy his silence, and instead the reviewer lambasted the offer publicly and unleashed more bile upon the barrister.
  3. Sympathetic: Another attorney simply replied that he was sorry the reviewer was unhappy with his services and asked him to call so that they could “work things out.” The crucial difference here was that there was no quid pro quo suggestion, and the complainant “added a star” to his initial review and the attorney came off looking concerned and sincere.
  4. Informative: To a reviewer who was ticked off at an attorney for abruptly “dropping him” after an initial phone consultation, the attorney simply explained that a consultation is not the same as agreeing to take a case, and wished the person well. By not appearing defensive, he also came off well.
  5. Litigious: There are a few cases of lawyers suing for defamation and winning substantial sums, but unless the falsehood is egregious and the offender has deep pockets, this route seems fraught with potential blow-back.

Judging from what I read, I’d say the best response for a lawyer to make is either “no,” as in just ignoring it, or a brief, non-defensive acknowledgement of the complaint, with an open offer to make things right.

Or just don’t read about yourself on Yelp.

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