Online Reputation for Attorneys: the Dos and Don’ts of Handling Negative Reviews

serious looking businessman

Critical online reviews can be problematic for anyone, but especially for lawyers.

Whether you’re part of a large firm or a solo practitioner, negative reviews attached to your name can have major impacts on your ability to attract new clients and retain existing ones. Thankfully, there are steps you can take, explained below, to either remove or suppress negative reviews.

Many lawyers approach reviews the wrong way, making their problems worse. Unfortunately, your legal instincts don’t always guide you true when it comes to handling online criticism.

That’s why this guide will walk you through the causes of negative client reviews, common mistakes attorneys make, and what your options are given the specifics of your situation.

1. Top reasons why clients leave negative reviews

The reasons clients leave negative reviews are similar to the reasons they file disciplinary actions against you, though naturally the bar is much lower when it comes to posting an online review.

Lack of transparency

According to the American Bar Association, one of the top reasons clients file disciplinary actions is because they simply don’t understand what’s going on. The same cause holds true when it comes to clients posting negative reviews.

The legal process is, more often than not, complex and byzantine. After all, that’s a big part of the reason your clients need your expertise in the first place. You may be doing an excellent job of representing the client and protecting his or her interests. However, if the client doesn’t see your work, it may seem like you’re not doing anything at all—yet the client still receives a bill at the end of the day.

This lack of transparency can lead to major misunderstandings, and one of the easiest ways to vent frustrations is to post an online review.

Lack of responsiveness

Similarly, clients expect to have their phone calls and emails returned within a reasonable amount of time. If your practice schedule makes it difficult to do this, you will undoubtedly start to accumulate a few negative reviews about your perceived lack of concern. You may need to make structural changes to your routine to allow you to better respond to client questions.

Unclear billing

Vague bills that simply list “X hours at Y dollars” are a surefire way to lose the trust of your clients. Remember, your clients have few independent ways of verifying that they’re getting what they pay for, especially if proceedings are dragging on longer than expected or there are unforeseen complications. If your bills are too minimalistic, you are likely to attract negative reviews. Provide a more detailed breakdown of time spent, who did what, and what the purpose was.

Unclear expectations

Make sure your clients have a roadmap of how you expect their situations to unfold—and that they understand it. A large number of negative lawyer reviews follow the format, “I was told X but then they did Y instead.” You can avoid this scenario with more careful client onboarding.

Excessive conservatism

In an unsure situation, the most prudent course for your clients is often the most conservative. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the course that best meets your client’s objectives.

People turn to a lawyer either to protect themselves or to initiate some type of change. If a client says, “My goal is to change X,” and your advice is predominantly, “Don’t do it / Too risky / Not possible,” the client may start to feel that you’re taking the easy way out. You may be better served by offering a range of options and letting the client make the risk calculation.

2. Common mistakes in handling negative reviews

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Even if you do everything right, it’s unavoidable that you’ll collect the odd negative review here and there. When you do, there’s a right and a wrong way to respond. Here are some of the mistakes lawyers commonly make.

Suing the reviewer

If you have a clear-cut case of defamation then you may be able to sue the reviewer, but even in these situations that’s not often the best course of action. Consider the case of Kyle Barella, a lawyer who made some anti-immigrant statements on the Breitbart News Network. His comments inspired a public backlash, and one individual took to Yelp to voice his dissatisfaction.

Barella responded by suing the reviewer. Unfortunately for Barella, his claims were baseless and could possibly even have opened him up to liability, depending on the specifics of his state’s anti-SLAPP laws. Furthermore, the suit did not lead to the review being retracted—to the contrary, it only attracted more attention to the negative review.

There are strategies Barella could have used to get the review removed (more on this below), but he didn’t employ them. Instead, he drew more negative attention to himself and his firm. Even in cases where defamation is present, the risk of increased negative attention can often outweigh the rewards of suing the poster.

Suing the review site

Legal precedent is quite clear that an online service provider generally can’t be held liable for content posted by a user. If the review violates the terms of the review site, you may be able to request it be taken down, but legal action against the site itself is unlikely to lead to success. Review sites have an incentive to reject your requests for removing negative reviews, and they have a history of holding firm under legal pressure.

Demanding that the review be deleted

Most unhappy reviewers do not respond to demands or threats, and the act of making the request can lead to further backlash, as was seen in the case of Kyle Barella.

Avoiding the real issue

If you see a recurring theme in your negative reviews, then chances are the problem is on your end. Take a look at what they’re saying and make operational improvements accordingly. Otherwise, you will continue to see these kinds of reviews pop up.

Publicly criticizing the client

Regardless of who is in the right, a public attack of a reviewer reflects poorly on you and your ability to properly represent the interests of future clients. More likely than not, you’ll just increase the ire focused against you and draw more attention to the reviewer’s criticisms.

Paying for fake reviews

This violates the terms of service of virtually all review sites, is illegal in most cases, and will put you in the crosshairs of the Federal Trade Commission. Plus it doesn’t work very well. Review sites have spent a lot of time and effort developing algorithms to filter out fakes, so your new reviews probably won’t show up anyway. Even if they do, they won’t sound natural and won’t inspire the trust of readers.

3. Deleting negative reviews

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When you get a negative review, it’s usually not possible to get it removed. Instead, you’ll be better served by trying to obscure it with more positive reviews. That said, there are a few situations where you can get reviews deleted.

Defamatory reviews

If the review makes defamatory statements that can be disproved, you may be able to get the review taken down. However, the process can be complicated, drawn-out, and may generate additional liability for you. Be sure to consult with a defamation lawyer before moving in this direction.

Off topic or terms of service violations

In recent years, we’ve seen a trend toward “activist” negative reviews, in which consumers who have never been customers of a business will post critical reviews to protest some action by the business or the business’s owners. One of the most famous of these cases is that of dentist Walter Palmer, who went on a big game hunting expedition and posted a photo of him having killed a lion. Subsequently, his practice’s Yelp page was overrun with thousands of negative reviews, criticizing him for killing the animal.

Since these reviews were not about the dental practice and were not written by patients of the dentist, they violate Yelp’s terms of service. Lawyers have had success getting these kinds of reviews removed from their pages by filing an official complaint that references the terms of service. Similarly, if you can prove that a review is fake or written by a competitor, you can generally have it removed.

4. Suppressing reviews that can’t be deleted

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Even if you can’t get the review deleted, you can often minimize its impact by burying it in positive reviews. The best way to do this is to recruit your most loyal clients, asking them to write you a review. Here are some tips on how to do that effectively:

Send a personal note

Like most attorneys, you probably have a large number of loyal, long-time clients who appreciate your work. Many of these clients have probably never thought of the idea of reviewing you, but would be happy to do so if asked. Reach out to them individually, explain the situation briefly, and ask them to write a review. Don’t ask them to say something positive, don’t provide a template, and don’t offer incentives. Just say you’d like them to share an honest, balanced opinion that would be useful to others. Most people will rise to the occasion and write something more nuanced, personalized, and thoughtful than if you tried to push them in a particular direction.

Email links to your review profiles

Make things easy on clients who might review you by sending them the links to your review profiles. That way they’re only one click away from being able to write you a review.

Recommend review sites strategically

If you’ve got issues on a particular site, you may want to send reviewers there. However, there are some caveats. For instance, Yelp tends to hide reviews by people who have never reviewed on Yelp before. So if you have negative reviews on that site, you should find out whether or not your client is already a Yelp user. If not, at better strategy is to google yourself, look at which review sites other than Yelp appear, and send the reviewer to one of those.

Similarly, consider the spread of reviews across your profiles. Let’s say review sites X, Y, and Z  show up in your search results, and that you’ve got a lot of reviews on sites X and Y but not on Z. Sending reviewers to the site with fewer reviews will give you a larger impact than sending them to the established sites.