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Tread carefully when responding to negative online reviews

ll_blackIn recent months there have been a spate of ethics opinions and headlines focused on the social media antics of lawyers. The behavior runs the gamut, whether it’s questionable or downright offensive social media posts, Zoom gaffes, or over-the-top responses to negative online reviews. One way or another, throughout the pandemic, lawyers have been posting and interacting without thinking, and the consequences of their actions have inevitably come back to haunt them.

Case in point: In re: Conry, OSB No. 8224. In this case, an attorney was accused of violating the duty of confidentiality when responding to negative online reviews posted by a single client on three different review sites: Yelp, Google, and Avvo. The three reviews by the former client were left using two different pseudonyms: “Yarik P” and “yarik.”

Attorney Conry responded to all three negative reviews. In one reply he included his client’s full name, and in all three responses he provided specific information regarding his client’s criminal convictions and criminal cases.

As explained by the Oregon Supreme Court, he later realized that some or all of his responses were likely improper, and as a result he attempted to remedy the error of his ways: “Respondent deleted client’s full name from the Avvo response approximately one month after posting it, apparently after speaking with an attorney. Respondent ultimately removed all three posts in about October 2016 after attending a seminar in which he ‘learned that [his] online posting responding to [client’s] online posting would likely be found by a number of bar disciplinarians to be inappropriate.’”

Despite his belated remedial actions, he was nevertheless the subject of a disciplinary complaint arising from his original responses to the negative online reviews. Specifically he was accused of “violating RPC 1.6 for revealing information relating to the representation of a client without the client’s permission.”

After considering the claims against him, the court concluded that not only did Conry indisputably disclose information gained from a former professional relationship, the nature of the disclosure was “embarrassing.” The court explained that the “audience consisted of people reading online reviews of attorneys. They had been told only that ‘Yarik P’ had had criminal ‘charges.’ They had not been told client’s name, his criminal history, or even that he had been convicted of any crimes … Respondent revealed that client had been convicted, identified the specific criminal convictions, and (in the Avvo review) provided client’s full name.”

Next, the court moved on to Conry’s defenses, and rejected them. The court determined that it was not “objectively reasonable (to believe that) it was necessary to reveal client’s name in the Avvo review” and declined to address the free speech issues raised by Conry.

Finally, the court addressed sanctions, and concluded that although the presumptive sanction would be to suspend his license to practice law, the court would instead publicly reprimand him. The court explained that due to “the difficult issues presented in this case — one of first impression before this court — and the aggravating and mitigating factors, we conclude that (a suspension) would be too harsh.”

The lesson to be learned, dear readers, is one that I’ve reiterated many times before: think before you post or interact online, whether in a professional capacity or otherwise. Carefully consider your options and the implications of your actions prior to hitting “send.” Take a deep breath, release your inner frustrations, and realize that some things are better left unsaid. Your law license — and a healthy blood pressure — are far more important than putting someone in their place.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase legal practice management software. She is the nationally recognized author of “Cloud Computing for Lawyers” (2012) and co-authors “Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier” (2010), both published by the American Bar Association. She also co-authors “Criminal Law in New York,” a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes regular columns for Above the Law, ABA Journal, and The Daily Record, has authored hundreds of articles for other publications, and regularly speaks at conferences regarding the intersection of law and emerging technologies. She is an ABA Legal Rebel, and is listed on the Fastcase 50 and ABA LTRC Women in Legal Tech. She can be contacted at [email protected].