Someone online hates you: Dos and don’ts of managing online feedback

Someone online hates you: Dos and don’ts of managing online feedback

May 2016 | Around the ABA

Joshua King has worked as a technology professional for more than 20 years, and he’s heard a multitude of reasons from lawyers on why their online reviews shouldn’t matter – from complaints on the subjectivity of the client experience, and grumblings that clients have widely different sets of expectations, to criticism that law practice is too nuanced to be adequately evaluated in such a way.

Still – lawyer objections are not going to make online reviews go away.

In fact, consumer reliance on such feedback is only growing, says King, who now serves as general counsel for AVVO, Inc., which hosts hundreds of thousands of attorney reviews and ratings on its website.  King cites the Nielsen Group’s annual global trust in advertising survey, which recently noted the rise of online opinions as the second-most-trusted advertising format, just behind recommendations from people known and trusted.

Not only are online reviews here to stay, says King, but – all attorneys, no matter how empathetic and effective they are, will at some time deal with negative feedback on the Internet. “No matter how wonderful you are as a lawyer, there will inevitably be people whose expectations can’t possibly be met,” he explains, pointing out that attorneys practicing in contentious, emotional areas of the law, such as family law, are particularly vulnerable.

So, when a bad review is posted, what do you do? 

To help attorneys answer that question, King offers a practical how-to guide in the ABA CLE, “Someone Online Hates You: The Ethical Challenges of Online Feedback and Advertising.” 

The initial reaction for many attorneys is to file a lawsuit. But King says that should be an option of last resort.  “Filing a defamation lawsuit over an online review is in almost all circumstances a horrendous idea,” he says, citing three important reasons.

First, “you can’t go after the big pocket,” says King, explaining that section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides immunity for online forum providers. “If you are a provider of an online forum for third parties to post comments, unless you are actively creating the content on that site, you cannot be held liable for it.”

“When it comes to reviews online that you think are defamatory, you have to go after the person who actually posted the review, which means figuring out who they are, finding them, successfully suing them for defamation and hoping they are not judgment proof,” King adds.

Second, “by filing a lawsuit, you’re calling attention to [the review].  You must ask yourself: If I bring more attention to this, is that going to make a lot more people see this? Is that going to make it more important or more credible?”

And lastly, King says that what many lawyers consider to be defamatory may not be at all.  “The definition of defamatory isn’t something that somebody wrote about me online that I don’t like. It’s got to be a materially false statement of fact that causes damages. A lot of what gets written online may be hyperbolic, may be over the top, but it is ultimately in the form of an opinion. And with some very limited exceptions, statements of opinion are not a basis for a defamation claim.”

King also warns that many states, such as Texas, Nevada and Pennsylvania, have ANTI-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) laws that protect comments people make online on matters of public concern, and that a similar measure is underway on the federal level.  

“What the ANTI-SLAPP statute does is it allows the defendant to bring an immediate motion to strike. And if [the defendant] can show they are speaking out on a matter of public concern, which is pretty easy to do when you’re talking about reviews of lawyers, then the burden shifts to the plaintiff,” says King, adding that if you can’t show that you have a prima facie case for defamation, your case will be dismissed and there is usually a mandatory award of attorneys’ fees.

Another bad reaction to an online review is “astroturfing,” which is a term for writing fake reviews.

It can be tempting to anonymously prepare your own positive reviews, but King warns that “you are never as anonymous online as you think you might be.”  He says that it’s relatively easy for someone who is motivated to follow the digital breadcrumbs to find the source of the content. 

Besides, astroturfing violates the rules of professional conduct, King says, citing ABA Model Rules 7.1 and 8.4, in particular.

Instead of reactions to online reviews that King calls “knee-jerk” and “thin-skinned,” lawyers should try to neutralize the feedback or turn it into a positive.

“You have the ability to leave the final word by providing a comment [to the review],” says King, suggesting that attorneys “rise above” the negativity.  “If you simply provide a professional response that you take feedback seriously and that you’re sorry they were displeased but they can contact you directly to see if you can make it right, that sends a powerful message to potential clients.”

“If done right, [comments] can provide a powerful marketing platform to showcase just how responsive, empathetic and thoughtful you can be,” says King, noting that lawyers should never argue with the reviewer, be defensive or condescending  – all of which can derail an attorney’s intention to neutralize the negative comments.

An excellent defense against negative online feedback is to post as much as possible about yourself and your practice.  Build out your online profiles on AVVO and LinkedIn, get yourself on Facebook and Twitter and blog on topics in your practice area.

“The more you can build the better.  You are inoculating yourself against negative online feedback,” King says, explaining that when users input your name into a search engine, your wall of content will likely appear at the top of search results, above any bad reviews.

“At the bare minimum, every lawyer can bear to write a white paper or two about their area of the law, and put it out there … then you’ve got something that’s not only helping your marketing, but is also going to offset that inevitable negative online review when it comes in.”

King notes that perhaps up to 30 percent to 40 percent of lawyers have nothing about themselves online, except perhaps for an AVVO profile. Soliciting client reviews can be a good way to build your wall of content. Don’t be afraid to tap your client base. King says that what he’s seen at AVVO and in a series of studies is that most clients, perhaps up to 75 percent, consistently leave positive feedback – even if they don’t get a great outcome.

 “If they feel like they were treated with respect and empathy, and the lawyer was really looking out for them and doing their best, they have a strong intrinsic motivation to pay that back by leaving feedback, King says.

King says he often tells lawyers that negative online feedback isn’t always a bad thing.  If a lawyer has a page of reviews that are uniformly positive, that can raise red flags. “I (tell lawyers they) could use a negative review or a middle-of-the-road one, if for no other reason than to lend some credibility to the positive ones.”

“Someone Online Hates You: The Ethical Challenges of Online Feedback and Advertising” is sponsored by the Law Practice Division, Section of Family Law and Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.