Parker von Sternberg, MJLST Staffer
The advent of Web 2.0 around the turn of the millennium brought with it an absolute tidal wave of new social interactions. To this day we are in the throes of figuring out how to best engage with one another online, particularly when things get heated or otherwise out of hand. In this new wild west, lawyers sit at a perhaps unfortunate junction. Lawyers are indelibly linked to problems and moments of breakdown—precisely the events that lead to lashing out online. At the same time a lawyer, more so than many professions, relies upon their personal reputation to drive their business. When these factors collide, it creates pressure on the lawyer to defend themselves, but doing so properly can be a tricky thing.
When it comes to questions of ethics for lawyers, the first step is generally to crack open the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC), given that they have been adopted in 49 states and are kept up to date by the American Bar Association (ABA). While these model rules are customized to some extent from state to state, by and large the language used in the MRPC is an effective starting point for professional ethics issues across the country. Recently, the ABA has stepped into the fray with Formal Opinion 496, which lays out the official interpretation of MRPC 1.6 and how it comes into play in these situations.
MRPC 1.6 protects confidentiality of client information. For our purposes, the pertinent sections are
(a) A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent, the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation or the disclosure is permitted by paragraph (b) and . . .
(b)(5) 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.
So, when someone goes on Google Maps and excoriates your practice, a review that will pop up to everyone who even looks for directions to the office, what can be done? The first question is whether or not they are in fact a former client. If not, feel free to engage! Just wade in there and start publicly fighting with a stranger (really though, don’t do this. Even the ABA knows what the Streisand Effect is). However, if they are a former client, MRPC 1.6 or the local equivalent applies.
In Minnesota we have the MNRPC, with 1.6(b)(8) mirroring MRPC 1.6(b)(5). At its core, the ABA’s interpretation turns on the fact that an online review, on its own, does not qualify as a “controversy” or “proceeding.” That is not to say that it cannot give rise to one though! In 2016 an attorney in Florida took home $350,000 after former clients repeatedly defamed her because their divorce didn’t go how they wanted. But short of the outright lies in that case, lawyers suffering from online hit pieces are more limited in their options. The ABA lays out four possible responses to poor online reviews:
1) do not respond to the negative post or review at all, because as was brought up above, you tempt the Streisand Effect at your peril;
2) request that the website or search engine remove the review;
3) post an invitation to contact the lawyer privately to resolve the matter; and
4) indicate that professional considerations preclude a response.
While none of these options exactly inspire images of righteous fury, defending your besmirched professional honor or righting the wrongs done to your name, it appears unlikely that they will get you in trouble with the ethics board either. The ABA’s formal opinion lays out an impressive list of authorities from nearly a dozen states establishing that lawyers can and will face consequences for public review-related dust ups. The only option for an attorney really looking to have it out online it seems is to move to Washington D.C., where the local rules allow for disclosure “to the extent reasonably necessary to respond to specific allegations by the client concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client.”