Today’s topic come up again for two different reasons. First, because the North Carolina State Bar has put out a new proposed ethics opinion seeking public comment about the topic. Second, because it was also discussed at one of the presentations made at the APRL mid-year meeting a week or so ago.
As the title of the post indicates, the topic is the ethical constraints on lawyers when faced with trying to respond to an online negative review posted by a client where they feel hard done and feel like, if allowed, they could demonstrate that the client’s negative allegations are unfair.
Proposed 2020 Formal Ethics Opinion 1 in North Carolina reaches roughly the same conclusion as the other ethics opinions issued on this topic: tread carefully because none of the confidentiality exceptions offered by RPC 1.6(b) are satisfied merely by the posting of an online review. Attempting to offer some practical advice, the proposed opinion says that the attorney can “post a proportional and restrained response that does not reveal any confidential information.” Given the broad scope of confidentiality under the ethics rules, this outcome offers little room for lawyers to offer much of a response. Perhaps recognizing that a bit, the opinion tries to find ways to authorize a lawyer to contest the negative review with denials while walking a fine line of not disclosing actual information by referencing some “generic” or limited denials that other ethics committees have proffered.
It’s a fine proposed ethics opinion in so far as it goes. (It’s also a good round-up of the opinions issued to date on this issue by other groups.) But it fails to fully wrestle with one ethical question it acknowledges is relevant and fails to address at all at least one interesting ethical question that ought to be the most relevant one of all.
It does address, in part, the meaning of certain language in Comment  to RPC 1.6 about a lawyer not being required to “await the commencement” of an action or proceeding to rely upon the self-defense exception. But it only focuses on it in one direction. Looking only to whether the disenchanted (or disingenuous if you believe the lawyer targeted) client is likely to pursue a proceeding, the opinion brushes aside that language as any justification for a lawyer on the basis that the client’s willingness to post a negative review does not alone demonstrate that the client is contemplating pursuing any formal proceeding against the lawyer.
But the opinion does not spend any time talking about the flipside, which was actually raised by an audience member at the APRL mid-year meeting I referenced above: What if the lawyer is the one contemplating pursuing a proceeding?
For example, some lawyers — lawyers who rely very heavily for work on their online presence and can be very badly damaged by a false review — may view the inability to respond to an online negative review as meaning that actually filing a suit for defamation against the client/former client is their only viable option. If they actually filed the suit, they’d be able to disclose information about the representation to make the case. So the logic goes, could they not begin to exercise that right of self-defense before they have commenced that proceeding?
Under that line of thinking, couldn’t they respond to the online review to contest the allegations, and indicate to the client that they will file suit for defamation if the client doesn’t retract the statements? I don’t think that works primarily because any such communication to the client about the review making that kind of demand before filing suit would have no need to occur publicly. In fact, it would seem reasonable to read the language in the Comment to RPC 1.6 exhorting lawyers to take certain steps, including seeking protective orders or filing matters under seal, even when pursuing litigation so as to keep reasonable disclosures of client information from unnecessary public dissemination as fundamentally contrary to such a course of public action prior to commencing such a suit.
The relevant ethical question that the opinion does not address at all is what a lawyer can do with respect to crafting a path for being able to respond through RPC 1.6(a) rather than RPC 1.6(b). As a practical matter, having written frequently about The Streisand Effect here in the past, I still believe that most of the time the best course for a lawyer is not to do anything to risk amplifying the megaphone the client has already obtained. Usually, engaging in a public skirmish with the person is only going to result in more people learning about the criticism, but I recognize that there are some lawyers who simply cannot afford the damage that can be caused to their business pipeline from negative online reviews.
For those lawyers, I think the only ethical path to get beyond offering platitudes and perfunctory denials would be to secure a client’s agreement, in advance, as part of an engagement contract that the lawyer may respond to any future online negative review that the client chooses to make.
Given that RPC 1.6(a) clearly allows lawyers to disclose information about their representation of a client if they have the client’s informed consent to do so. It seems to me that if the issue is described sufficiently on the front end, and the client agrees in advance that the price of going online to complain is that the lawyer can use information about the representation to respond to the complaint, then the requirement of informed consent can be satisfied. While it could feel very much like a truly awful first foot to put forward with a client by raising the issue, if the lawyer’s practice is such that the issue is that important, there also is a benefit to being up front with the person about it at the time that they are prospective client.
But maybe you all can tell me if I’m missing something in that respect?