Hippocrates is accredited for originating the phrase, “Desperate times call for desperate matters.” This, my friend, is not one of those times. Take a moment and step back from the situation. Evaluate.
Your Reaction Is Normal
Attacks on our personal and professional abilities can hit close to home and elicit a dramatic, immediate response. It's natural. It*s in our nature to defend ourselves and our work, even from trite comments. You may quickly become desperate to respond in haste, to save face before the attacker and all those observing.
Don't do it. Or at least, don't do it until you have properly evaluated the entire situation and drafted a well-crafted reply, if needed.
Push the Pause Button
First, analyze the negative review to determine if it is inappropriate or is in violation of the terms of service of the site. This should begin with confirming that it is actually a legitimate negative review. Was the person posting the review actually your client? Did he mistake you for another attorney with the same or similar name? Do you have reason to contest or report the posted review?
Various online resources allow you to control how a reviewer*s comments may be viewed by others, or how you may report a suspected false or problem review or comment.
Engage or Move On?
Next, you should weigh your options to publicly respond or do nothing. Sometimes, as difficult as it may be, you might determine it's best to leave sleeping dogs lie. Sure, you*re not just replying to the person posting the negative review, rather you are providing a glimpse into your own style, demeanor, professionalism, and so on to future clients reading the same. If the negative review seems impractical or irrational on its face, then maybe it has little to no real impact on your profile. Thus, you might decide not to draw more attention to it by engaging in a reply.
Nevertheless, while it is not inherently unethical to respond to negative online reviews (see various ethic opinions below), do so carefully. First and foremost, be mindful to uphold all confidentiality duties to your current and former clients as Rule 1.6 demands (absent the former client's informed consent or waiver of confidentiality). In addition to not revealing any client confidences, here are some other suggestions for drafting your response:
* Be Proportionate - Keep it simple. If further explanation or discussion is warranted, offer to continue the discussion offline or to hear more from them in person.
* Be Restrained - You cannot turn back time or the results of a matter, so don*t get into an if-then argument. Keep looking forward, not back. Yet, if such a legal matter might be ongoing, encourage them to seek legal counsel.
* Be Sincere - You may want to acknowledge the reviewer's feelings and express that you (and your firm) take all client feedback seriously. A display of sincere empathy can go a long way with former clients, and future clients who may see you care about the case and the person.
If you're having difficulty drafting a response with such attributes, try turning to the professionals for help. Other service industries such as hotels and restaurants have honed their skills at constructing online negative review responses to pacify even the nastiest of former patrons. See how they have structured their responses to give yourself some examples.
Phone a Friend
Once you have your draft response ready to submit, you're not done yet. Find at least two individuals, preferably with no involvement in the matter, to review your reply for content and tone. Their independent analysis of your reply will further ensure that you have remained proportionate, restrained, and sincere.
Since the internet is for all to see and forever, be sure you*re okay with ringing that bell. Otherwise, learn from the experience and move on.
Relevant ethical opinions:
NYSBA Op. 1032 (2014) - Responding to a former client's critical commentary on a website
Pennsylvania Bar Assoc. Op. 2014-200 - Lawyer's Response to Client's Negative Online Review
Bar Assoc. of San Francisco Op. 2014-1
Texas Center for Legal Ethics Op. 662
NYSBA Op. 912 - Publishing criticism of other attorneys
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