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July 1, 2017
Attorneys must watch what they say when responding to negative reviews

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

A Florida lawyer who was blasted by what he considered to be an unfair, negative review by a client on Avvo.com, felt compelled to defend himself, and skated awfully close to violating the client confidentiality rule.

Quote Consider it a cautionary tale from Shanell Schuyler, director of ACAP/Intake at The Florida Bar, who reviewed a grievance against the lawyer.

She advises all lawyers to “develop a thick skin,” take the high road, and stay professional when confronted by negative online reviews.

As Schuyler described the situation, the case had gone through the review process, and her investigation was complete, when the complainant wrote a negative review on Avvo.com.

The lawyer responded by saying he disagreed, denied the client’s account, and went on to detail: “She didn’t tell you how I successfully and zealously represented her in another matter.” But the complainant’s review didn’t say anything about defending the other matter.

“He was pushing up against revealing a client confidentiality,” Schuyler said. “It went awfully close.”

In this case, Schuyler called the attorney and cautioned him about responding to negative reviews.

She explained that Rule 4-1.6(c)(2) says an attorney may reveal client information to the extent necessary “to establish a claim or defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy” or “to respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client.” An online review is not a “proceeding,” and a response to an online review is not establishing a defense in a controversy between the two.

Schuyler conferred with Bar Ethics Counsel Elizabeth Tarbert, who supplied many ethics opinions and disciplinary cases from other states that have dealt with this issue. They agreed the best advice for a lawyer is to maintain the highest level of professionalism and respond to a negative online rating this way: “I respectfully disagree with my client’s position here, but confidentiality rules prohibit me from responding in any other way.”

Alternatively, the lawyer could consider posting a statement that the lawyer is sorry the client is unhappy and offer to try to resolve the client’s concern, or the lawyer could consider not responding at all.

[Revised: 11-19-2017]