ABA Issues Guidance on Responding to Online Criticism

I haven’t blogged since before Christmas. Alas, like tragic ancient romances, all good things must come to an end.

I’m going to ease back into it with a topic familiar to regular readers: a lawyer’s duties when responding to online criticism.  It’s an issue I’ve discussed often.  Links to my prior posts are below.  Here’s the nutshell version:

  • when considering if or how to respond to a negative review, a lawyer should be as careful as Elmer Fudd was quiet when hunting rabbits: very, very.

Yesterday, the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility issued Formal Opinion 496: Responding to Online Criticism.  I like the opinion and urge you to read it.  Here are my thoughts.

In Vermont, Rule 1.6 prohibits a lawyer from disclosing information relating to the representation of client.  Our rule on former clients, Rule 1.9, incorporates Rule 1.6 by reference.

There are exceptions to the general prohibition. Of the exceptions, the so-called “self-defense” exception is most often cited as permitting a lawyer to disclose other confidential information in response to a negative review.  As I’ve long pointed out, it doesn’t.

In Vermont, the “self-defense” exception appears in Rule 1.6(c)(3).  It permits a lawyer to disclose information relating to the representation:

  • to establish a claim or defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client;
  • to establish a defense to a criminal charge or civil claim against the lawyer based upon conduct in which the client was involved; or,
  • to respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client.

As ABA Opinion 496 further makes clear, a negative review is not “a controversy” or “proceeding” that triggers the “self-defense” exception.

In short, “my client criticized me online” does not fall within the exceptions to the general prohibition on disclosure.

Finally, while I haven’t received many inquires about how to respond to online reviews, those I’ve received consistently include the lawyer saying something like “the client’s post waives the privilege, so I can respond, right?”

Hold up!!

Your ethical obligation is not to disclose information relating to the representation of a client or former client.  The obligation encompasses all information relating to the representation, no matter the source.  As such, it is much broader than the attorney-client privilege.

In addition, the privilege is asserted in response to demands that compel production of confidential information.  For example, discovery requests or a request to testify under oath.  Whether a client’s online review constitutes a waiver of an evidentiary privilege is for a court to decide. It is not for the lawyer to decide in posting a reply.  Or, as the committee notes at the very beginning of its analysis in Formal Opinion 496:

  • “[t]he scope of the attorney-client privilege, as opposed to confidentiality, is a legal question that this Committee will not address in this opinion.”

So, what can a lawyer do when criticized online? Opinion 496 includes guidance.  From the summary:

  • As a best practice, lawyers should consider not responding to a negative post or review, because doing so may draw more attention to it and invite further response from an already unhappy critic. Lawyers may request that the website or search engine host remove the information. Lawyers who choose to respond online must not disclose information that relates to a client matter, or that could reasonably lead to the discovery of confidential information by another, in the response. Lawyers may post an invitation to contact the lawyer privately to resolve the matter. Another permissible online response would be to indicate that professional considerations preclude a response.”

Negative online reviews will happen.  Fight the urge! Think and long & hard before you respond.

1.6

RELATED MATERIAL

 My Blog Posts

Negative Online Review? How Not to Respond

Negative Online Review? Restrain Yourself!

Other Blog Posts

ABA Journal, How to ethically respond to negative reviews from clientsCynthia Sharp (friend of this blog)

Responding to Negative Online Reviews, Catherine Reach, North Carolina Bar Association Center for Practice Management

Advisory Opinions

 North Carolina State Bar, Proposed Opinion 2020-1

New York State Bar Association Ethics Opinion 1032

The Bar Association of San Francisco, Ethics Opinion 2014-1

Los Angeles County Bar Association Ethics Opinion 525

 

 

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