A former client blasts you in a Yelp review, slams you on AVVO, or posts something unflattering on Facebook.
You have a choice: you can either ignore the unfavorable feedback or respond. But if you choose to respond, what should you say and how should you say it? Can you disclose specific details about the case?
A recently approved ethics opinion from the NC State Bar sheds light on those and related questions.
2020 Formal Ethics Opinion 1 responds to an inquiry from a lawyer whose former client posted a negative review of the lawyer’s representation on a consumer rating website. Lawyer thinks the review is false but can’t unilaterally remove or edit the review. Lawyer has confidential information (as defined by Rule 1.6(a)) that would rebut the negative allegations.
“In response to the former client’s negative online review, Lawyer may post a professional and restrained response that does not reveal any confidential information,” according to 2020 FEO 1. “Lawyer may deny the veracity of the review, but lawyer may not use confidential client information to contradict specific facts set out in therein.”
Two key words in the opinion are “professional” and “restrained.” Highlights from the opinion appear below.
Read the full text of 2020 FEO 1 here.
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How to Ethically Respond to a Bad Review
Here are some highlights from 2020 FEO 1:
- Online reviews are today’s personal recommendations. Many potential clients will read -and rely on- online reviews as the first step to finding a lawyer. Because online reviews are so important to a lawyer’s practice, online reputation management is crucial. Therefore, it may be in the lawyer’s best interest to respond to a negative review.
- Nevertheless, the protection of client confidences is one of the most significant responsibilities imposed on a lawyer. Rule 1.6(a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct provides that a lawyer may not reveal information acquired during the professional relationship with a client unless (1) the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation; (2) the client gives informed consent; or (3) one of the exceptions set out in Rule 1.6(b) applies. Rule 1.6(a) applies to all information acquired during the representation. Under Rule 1.9(c), a lawyer is generally prohibited from using or revealing confidential information of a former client. Responding to a negative online review is not necessary to “carry out the representation.” Therefore, Lawyer may not reveal confidential information in response to the negative online review unless the former client consents or an exception set out in Rule 1.6(b) applies.
- No exception in Rule 1.6(b) allows Lawyer to reveal confidential information in response to a former client’s negative review.
- A disagreement as to the quality of a lawyer’s services might qualify as a “controversy.” However, such a broad interpretation is problematic for two reasons. First, it would mean that any time a lawyer and a client disagree about the quality of the representation, the lawyer may publicly divulge confidential information. Second … a lawyer’s disclosure of confidential information to “establish a claim or defense” only arises in the context of a civil, criminal, disciplinary or other proceeding.
- An individual who is not a current or former client, and has never consulted with Lawyer with respect to a particular matter, posts a negative review of Lawyer’s legal services on a consumer rating website. May Lawyer respond to the post by stating that he has never represented the individual? Opinion #2: Yes. The duty of confidentiality set out in Rule 1.6 only applies to information obtained during a lawyer-client relationship.
Please read the full opinion for additional information.
Source: NC State Bar
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