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Online reviews are important to marketing, and as a lawyer, you have ethical limitations to operate within as you consider how to source positive reviews and respond to negative ones.
NINETY-FIVE percent of consumers relied on online reviews to help them decide which lawyer to hire, and of that group 83% indicated checking reviews was the first thing they do when finding a lawyer (Avvo, 2016). Staying informed is the first step to managing your online reputation as a lawyer.
Steps to get search results and receive alerts when your firm or name appears in search engine indexes can be found in this 2019 article from Catherine Reach at the North Carolina Bar Association.
Responding to Negative Reviews
Ethics first, always — responding to a negative review as a lawyer can lead to disciplinary action, specifically, “if the lawyer posts a response that discloses the identity of the client or reveals confidential information the lawyer gained through the representation.” The Massachusetts BBO has provided guidance on managing your online reputation as a lawyer within the bounds of the Rules of Professional Conduct in a 2018 article, Coping with Negative Online Reviews, by Robert M. Daniszewski, ABC, which provides thorough detail about sanctions attorneys have faced following mistaken assumptions about anonymity. The BBO even provides template language to use in response (emphasis added below),
The fact that a response to a negative review cannot include confidential client information dictates that the lawyer take a minimalist approach. Therefore, if a Massachusetts attorney is inclined to respond to an online review at all, bar counsel would advise the lawyer simply to note disagreement with the review while pointing out that any further discussion will have to be between the lawyer and the client. For example, the lawyer may respond: “I am sorry the reviewer feels this way. Although I disagree with the reviewer’s comments about my representation, the Rules of Professional Conduct prevent me from discussing the facts of the engagement in a public forum such as this. I have, however, reached out to the reviewer directly to discuss her concerns.”
A couple other basic options are discussed in the BBO article: (1) Not responding at all, and (2) Attempting resolution. Not responding at all is an option for any review that is irrational or unfair on its face, and usually inadvisable otherwise. ABA Formal Opinion 496, issued on Jan. 13, 2021, also addresses how lawyers can respond to criticism online.
You might be able to get a negative review taken down depending on its nature. Instructions on how to get reviews taken down from popular review sites can be found in this 2020 article from Catherine Reach at the North Carolina Bar Association, which notes that “if a review is inaccurate, they weren’t your client, if the review is threatening, includes hate speech or is lewd you may have some recourse directly with the review site in getting it taken down.” The same article also recommends not choosing to sue the client in any situation, and notes the Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016 prohibits non-disparagement clauses.
Attempting resolution is always an option but most likely, a negative online review isn’t the first time a client expressed their dissatisfaction. You need processes in your law practice to capture and apply feedback for reasons beyond preventing online publication of negative feedback, including general marketing purposes and making improvements to client experience and the design of your practice. You’ll want to capture negative feedback in private communication to you throughout representation, at which points you’d naturally want to take whatever practical steps you might be able to resolve the client’s dissatisfaction enough at least to prevent public review, which still might not always be possible. Find sample questions at key touch points in “Avoid Bad Reviews by Requesting Client Feedback” from Catherine Reach. Additional strategies to bury the review and bury the search result are discussed in this October 2020 ABA article from Ken Matejka, JD, LLM.
Notably, positive results from negative reviews were demonstrated in recent study. In July 2020, the Journal of Marketing published “Negative Reviews, Positive Impact: Consumer Empathetic Responding to Unfair Word of Mouth,” which documents “how negative reviews, when perceived as unfair, can activate feelings of empathy toward firms that have been wronged.” A clear takeaway is that in certain situations, it can be advantageous to let unfair negative reviews exist on any platform. It’s possible that legal consumers might even expect to see negative reviews due the nature of the service they’re seeking. Commonly, legal services aren’t like a widget designed to function a certain way, but are responsive to complex and unique problems.
The best defense is a good offense, as noted by the Massachusetts BBO and the NC Bar articles. The impact of a negative review is largely determined by the context of other reviews. And counteracting negative reviews isn’t the only reason to seek positive ones.
Sourcing Positive Reviews
Even without a negative review, having positive online reviews is essential marketing. Sourcing feedback throughout representation will make it clear which clients to ask for online reviews, but note some ethical limits discussed in the same 2018 article from the BBO (emphasis below added),
Such a request should come after the conclusion of the representation so that the client has no occasion to worry that the contents of the review or rating posted by the client could affect the relationship with the lawyer. Lawyers should also take care to assure clients that they are not under any obligation to post a review.
Although asking a satisfied client to post a review is ethically permissible, it would violate Mass. R. Prof. C. 7.2(b) to provide any sort of compensation or material incentive, such as a reduction of the fees owed by the client, in exchange for a positive review. Specifically, the rule provides that “[a] lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services. . . .”
Not surprisingly, it would also constitute a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers to create or solicit fake reviews as part of their marketing or public relations strategies.
Finally, note that you might not want to aim for a perfect 5.0 rating, according to research from Martindale-Avvo. Recognizing authenticity as the underlying reason, CMO Kelly Newcomb explained the target range for overall ratings:
The sweet spot for review scores is typically between 4.0 and 4.7, not 4.9 and 5.0. Consumers generally don’t recognize the substantial difference between a 4.5 or a 4.6 and a 4.9. Additionally, factors like the number of reviews or recentness of reviews are regularly taken into account by potential clients.
Find more about improving client experience here on our Mass LOMAP Blog.
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Two previous posts on our Mass LOMAP Blog now redirect here, Take Control of Your Online Reputation and Guest Post: Embracing Online Reviews and Dealing with Negative Publicity.