May 1, 2013
“The Good, The Bad And The Ugly With Online Reviews“
Carol M. Langford, Contra Costa Lawyer
A search on the business rating site Yelp for attorneys in San Francisco yields 5,681 results. Although Yelp and similar sites are probably best suited for restaurants and night clubs, many people use the site to review professionals. These reviews influence potential clients. The Lawyerist.com, a blog for legal professionals, recently polled a thousand people with the question: “When you need to find a specialty lawyer, how would you start your search?” Twenty-two percent said that they search Google or another search engine, 10 percent said that they “look elsewhere on the internet” and 2 percent said that they “ask on my favorite social network.”
Yelp is not the best indicator of an attorney’s ability—but most people using Yelp don’t know that. Most experiences with Yelp reveal that generally bad restaurants get bad reviews and good restaurants get good reviews. However, some places of business and now some attorneys either pay people to write good reviews or ask their dearest friends to rate their lawyer skills online. Thus, inexperienced lawyers who are savvy with social networking can have outstanding reviews and more seasoned, but less Internet-savvy attorneys can have bad reviews and not even know about it. In some instances, attorneys might be rated for things that have nothing to do with their legal abilities. There is really no way to tell why someone rated a particular attorney with high marks.
However, the troubling question is, what can a lawyer do to fight back when he or she receives a negative review on Yelp? According to some ethics experts: not much. In the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Formal Ethics Opinion #525, the authors concluded that any public response to a negative review online must not “disclose confidential information,” must “not injure the former client in any matter involving the prior representation” and must be “proportionate and restrained.” The part about not disclosing confidential information can leave attorneys at a huge disadvantage when responding online.
Because opinions are protected by the First Amendment, clients are usually within their rights to log onto social media sites and trash their attorney, as long as they don’t knowingly make false statements—a hard standard to prove. Further complicating matters is the attorney-client privilege, which restricts the attorney as to what he or she can say to respond, if that requires divulging privileged information. For instance, imagine a client that hired a personal injury attorney with unreasonable expectations of receiving millions of dollars in settlement, or a client that ended up slighted in a divorce settlement because of his or her own bad behavior. The client could then go on Yelp, AVVO, LawyerRatingz, Angie’s List, etc., and tell the world that the attorney botched the case. In this situation most people would reasonably want to defend themselves against these accusations by pointing out the client’s own bad behavior. But as lawyers we cannot. So what can we do?
A professional can always sue over a bad review for defamation—but only if the statements made in the review were false. Even then, it’s probably not a good idea. The Associated Press recently reported about a Minneapolis Neurologist, David McKee, who sued a patient’s son for defamation after he wrote a scathing review, including disparaging comments allegedly said by the doctor to him and his family following his father’s stroke. McKee claims that the statements attributed to him were not true. This particular case has not been decided ( * ), but such suits are rarely successful. A study by Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, revealed that of the 28 physicians who have recently filed similar suits, 16 of them were dismissed and six of them settled.
The outcome of such suits can be devastating. In a July 13, 2009, article the San Francisco Chronicle reported about a California dentist, Yvonne Wong, who sued a patient and Yelp after the patient posted a negative review on Yelp’s site. Ultimately, Ms. Wong was ordered to pay more than $80,000 in attorney’s fees to her patient and Yelp. The judge ruled in that case that California’s stringent anti-SLAPP law could be applied because the patient had mentioned mercury fillings in her review, and thus the review furthered discussion of an issue of public interest.
Even Yelp’s spokeswoman Kristen Whisenand recommends against using the “nuclear option” and suing for a negative review. Why? Because it usually only brings more attention to the negative review—which is what the professional didn’t want in the first place. For example, in 2007, the New York Times reported about attorney John Henry Browne who sued the lawyer-ranking site Avvo alleging that his 5.7 (out of 10) ranking was damaging to his law practice. A federal judge held that the reviews were protected under the First Amendment right to express opinions and dismissed the case. The case brought more public notice to the negative Avvo reviews that the attorney wanted removed in the first place. A search of the same attorney now shows that he was able to raise that number to 6.6, so maybe he learned a thing or two since then. Or maybe he simply became more Internet-savvy and learned how to work the system.
The best option for attorneys is to check the ratings websites, and respond to the reviews in a friendly, proactive manner. For example, one San Francisco attorney with a rating of 2.5 stars on Yelp (out of 5 possible stars) responded to each and every one of his negative reviews in a polite manner that did not divulge privileged information. Although measures such as these may seem distasteful, the reality is that social media exists, people do check it when searching for an attorney, and the only thing attorneys can do is to stay on top of things.
Carol M. Langford has a practice in State Bar defense and professional licensing disputes in Walnut Creek. She teaches professional responsibility as an adjunct at U.C. Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law, and Hastings College of the Law. Additionally, Ms. Langford serves as an expert witness in cases involving complicated ethics issues and presents at conferences and symposiums across the state. She is a past Chair of the California Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct.