How Lawyers Can Handle Bad Reviews and Complaints on Social Media

When I spoke recently at the State Bar of Texas annual meeting about social media success stories for lawyers, I got a familiar question: “What should I do if someone trashes me online in social media?”

Almost every lawyer has experienced a client with unreasonable expectations, or one who got bad results because of their own bad behavior or bad facts. I can’t even count how many different people over the years that I have heard claim that they got cheated in their divorce settlement because their lawyer was in cahoots with the other side. (None of them told a credible story.) The difference today is that they can widely publicize their opinions and dissatisfaction online. I have been taken aback by the vituperative language used in anonymous comments to blogs and news posts. Given these common occurrences today, there is a definite risk that someday you will face an unfavorable rating or an untrue statement about your services online.

Some attorneys cite fear of negative comments as a reason for eschewing social media altogether. They are uniformed, however. Ratings and comments can be posted about your legal services on many sites whether you engage social media or not. If you don’t play, you won’t know what they say. It’s a good idea to check for your name and rating from time to time on various sites such as www.AVVO.com, www.LawyerRatingz.com , www.mojopages.com, and www.yelp.com . This is particularly important if you work in a consumer oriented practice, such as family/domestic, personal injury or criminal law, which are among the areas of practice that have the highest level of malpractice claims and grievances filed.

What Not to Do

Don’t lash out online at the complainer or take a defensive posture. That will fan the flames and may draw out posts by lawyer-haters piling on. At best, you will appear to be wallowing in the mud with the swine. (To mix a few metaphors.)

When you don’t have to pay legal fees, you might be tempted to file a libel action against the person publishing ugly things about you. Cool your jets and consider the likely consequences, however. So far, most of the defamation lawsuits filed as a result of comments in social media have garnered a lot of negative publicity for the defamation claimant, but no compensation.

Consider the following examples:

  • In 2009, California dentist Yvonne Wong sued a patient and Yelp for defamation based on a negative review posted on Yelp.com. In 2011 the dentist was ordered to pay more than $80,000 in attorney’s fees to Yelp and the patient under California’s anti-SLAPP law. The court held that the Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) statute applied because the posting referenced the use of mercury fillings, furthering discussion of an issue of public interest.
  • In 2007, lawyers John Henry Browne and Alan Wenokur sued Avvo.com. Among other claims, Browne alleged that his rating of 5.7 out of 10 damaged his reputation. U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik held that the ratings were opinions protected by the First Amendment, and dismissed the case. In Googling each lawyer’s name, I found hits about their lawsuit against Avvo for their mediocre rankings, prominently displayed on the first page of results. Did they really want to draw first page attention to those ratings?
  • In 2009, Horizon Group Management sued a tenant for $50,000 for tweeting “…Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s okay.” The tenant only had 20 followers on Twitter at the time, so almost no one would have noticed the tweet. Horizon’s lawsuit brought on a firestorm of criticism and national publicity, however, undoubtedly causing more damage to its reputation than the tweet. In 2010 the court dismissed Horizon’s lawsuit, holding that the tweet was too vague to be actionable.

What Can You Do?

The cheapest, quickest, and probably most effective thing you can do is to ask your happy clients to post reviews describing their positive experiences with you. As the positive reviews come in, the negative review will scroll out of sight. It may even wind up giving credibility to the glowing reviews, as the “exception that proves the rule.” Note that today on dentist Wong’s Yelp page the positive reviews significantly outnumber the negative ones. (The review that is the subject of the lawsuit appears to have been modified or removed.) Isn’t that more effective anyway?

In addition to, or in lieu of that, consider addressing the comment with a gracious apology or regret for their dissatisfaction, appreciation for the feedback, and an invitation to address the matter with the complainant personally. For examples of some good online customer diplomacy, see responses by “Josh, Intuit Product Manager” to complaints on Amazon.com about QuickBooks.

If the flaming occurs on Twitter, take some customer service tips from the playbook of Delta Airlines at http://twitter.com/#!/DeltaAssist. Sympathize, apologize and invite them to DM you (a direct message in a private conversation) so that you can address the problem. For more details about Delta’s proactivity online, read How Delta connected the dots between social media and customer service.

When a reader sees your sincere and gracious response, evidencing your effort to understand the client’s concern and find a solution, it will take some of the sting out of the client’s indictment. It might even convince prospective clients that you are the kind of caring and dedicated lawyer they want to work with.

Finally, it may sound masochistic, but have some gratitude for the complainers. They’re letting you know what you can do better. Most unhappy clients just go away and tell everyone except you about what you need to improve.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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15 comments on “How Lawyers Can Handle Bad Reviews and Complaints on Social Media

  • Debra,
    A carefully worded and thoughtful article on one of our biggest fears as attorneys and entrepreneurs.

    In my line of work, these problems can sometimes be nipped in the bud if a discussion is had at the outset of the relationship on how conflicts will be addressed. Enabling mediation, as the path of first instance when a conflict arises in a relationship, empowers each party to employ mediation to address a conflict they percieve as it arises, before it has a chance to fester yet without feeling they are ‘giving up’ the upper hand.

    Enabling the forum for discussion of differences with a neutral mediator has the ability to ‘diffuse’ situations that can lead to on line reputation bashing.

    Great job bringing such a topical issue to Solo Practice U’s blog.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Debra. [Of course, I would expect good judgment from someone with your name. ;-) ] You make a very good point that lawyers should anticipate the possibility of misunderstandings with clients, and develop strategies for recognizing them and addressing them early on so that they don’t fester and boil over into a public forum.

  • Sadly, disgruntled clients aren’t the only ones who can try to trash you online. Unfortunately, I have experienced and seen others experience getting “severely criticized” by a fellow lawyer. And I think the same approach applies- responding graciously, sincerely and always professional is the only way to go. That way if potential clients see the negative comments, they will also see your gracious response. After that, you just have to let it go. You can’t please all the people all the time. I think its something that will happen to most people with a substantial online presence at one point or another.

    • Rachel, I agree that if you have a substantial internet presence, you will probably attract criticism in a public domain at some point. For some reason, many people who disagree with a view tend to attack the person, rather than the idea. Since the attacks are often out of proportion, I think readers are learning to dismiss them and pay more attention to the thoughtful responses. In some circumstances, such attacks can actually ultimately serve the person who is the target of the attack, however, by drawing out supporters who would not have spoken up otherwise. Our challenge is to develope a thick skin without becoming insensitive. And, as you said, learn to let it go. Thanks for your input.

    • I posted about this topic a few months back here – http://www.legalmarketingblawg.com/2011/03/rating-responses-to-negative-r.html and agree with everything you’ve said.
      However, I think you’ve overlooked the most important point: lawyers can never, ever breach client confidentiality to respond to a negative review. I have seen some of the attorney responses at Avvo, and a handful throw the client under the bus by disclosing too many facts about the case just so that the lawyer can preserve his reputation. Nor can a lawyer have buddies post fake endorsements in response. When a lawyer respond to negative views in that manner, it makes me wonder whether they’re deserved.

      • Hi Carolyn,
        You are absolutely right to warn lawyers not to reveal client confidences in responding. That’s a good point to highlight. I also like the suggested language in your post: “I don’t know who posted this response, but I wish you had mentioned your concerns about the bill while I was handling your case.” I would probably follow that with “I appreciate getting feedback and I hope you will contact me personally to discuss this matter.”

        Personally, I think that we can rarely come off well by defending ourselves online. There is such a risk of sounding like we aren’t really listening and are more concerned about ourselves than the client. It also can incite them to blast us again. I’m in favor of expressing my regret that they are unhappy and inviting them to contact me directly so that I have a better opportunity to understand and address their concerns.

        Thanks for your comment, and for sharing your post with its valuable insights.

  • Rule 1. Never engage trolls.

    There are no other rules.
    :-)

    And, sit back and smile that you’ve just received a post or two that give credibility to the truthfulness and sincerity of all the good reviews people have posted.

    • Kevin, I agree. When I see a lot of positive posts and a couple of negative ones, I tend to wonder whether the negative folks are the types who are never happy. Often complainers speak in such hyperbole, with so few facts, that they don’t have a lot of credibility unless the number of complaints start adding up.

  • I recently responded to a post on a popular question and answer forum from a person who admittedly had “no clue” as to how to proceed in a legal matter. Knowing that more than just the asker read these posts, I tried to emphasize the importance of seeking legal counsel because the forum that she was on was simply not going to give her what she wanted (basically, step-by-step guidance from a lawyer at no cost).

    Her response was harsh. I chose to respond by saying that I was sorry about her taking offense (not sorry about my post) and that I understood that wasn’t the information she *wanted* to hear.

    So, now I have a bad review online (forever connected to my profile on that site) from someone who is not even a client. No doubt some will find fault with my response to her criticism, just as she did with my initial answer. But, in the end, I feel better about replying to it.

    • Take heart. Maybe it’s not a bad review of you after all. If you responded in a way that demonstrated that you were speaking out of concern for her welfare, her angry reaction would not necessarily reflect poorly on you. Other readers may perceive you differently. The challenge in writing online or in emails is that the READER supplies the tone of voice. Sometimes our intent gets misconstrued. I hope you were able to make your caring or helpful intent more clear in your second response.

  • In reference to your suggestion about Yelp reviews…Once you get a negative review on Yelp, you may find that all of your positive reviews prior to that will suddenly disappear. When your clients post positive reviews after that, you may find that those too will get filtered out. Yelp refuses to allow any of my positive reviews to remain. I’ve noticed they disappear within two days. My clients have asked me about it. I complained to Yelp and to the BBB with no result — and I’ve had 13 positive reviews since I began complaining to them.

    There are countless complaints and several lawsuits against Yelp accusing them of extortion, using negative reviews as a way to scare businesses into advertising with them. Remember that Yelp gets nothing from positive reviews. Their business model is to make money on paid advertising. Beware! You cannot beat Yelp at this game.

    • Having the same issue with a criminal defense client. Two 1 star reviews that are totally fake accounts stay on our yelp page. In the meantime real clients leave 5 star reviews and are filtered out immediately.

  • It is refreshing to see that some legal professionals “get it”. I have had the sad experience of working with not one, but two attorneys who simply vanished into thin air after missing very important deadlines that cost me literally tens of thousands of dollars.

    In both instances I filed a grievance with the local BAR Association(s) and all that accomplished was the attorney at fault had to hire another attorney to assist them with the complaint.

    It was only out of sheer desperation that I filed a consumer complaint online with one of the major complaint websites and “lo and behold”, I finally got their attention. They were not dead or MIA after all, just totally unconcerned with the outcome of my case or my issues.

    It took one full year of negotiations between myself and the “other parties” attorneys to finally reach a resolution, but reach it we did.

    The unfortunate thing for the attorney(s) was that on a lot of those complaint sites, once the complaint is registered, it never goes away even if the original poster requests it be taken down or states clearly that the matter has been satisfactorily resolved.

    I think the moral of this story is to always address disgruntled clients issues head on and make every effort to keep your fiduciary duty to them. And when you fail to do so, then MAKE IT RIGHT instead of dodging their calls and e-mails.

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