Public Spat With Client Leads to Disciplinary Action
Many professionals are proud of their work-product, their reputation, and their capabilities. Along those lines, many professionals are sensitive of their public image, including their online presence. Therefore, when others post critical reviews of a professional on social media, it may be tempting to respond in a defensive manner. But, be careful.
Recently, a Washington D.C. attorney received an informal admonition from the Office of Disciplinary Counsel following a public dispute with a former client. According to the Disciplinary Counsel, the client claimed that she had prepared most of the documents submitted by the attorney on her behalf, but that the attorney had billed her an inordinate number of hours to proof or edit the documents. She further alleged that the expenses charged by the attorney were unwarranted , and suggested that the attorney performed poorly during her mediation.
After the attorney-client relationship ended, the client posted comments about the attorney on a website, in which she expressed her criticisms of the attorney. The attorney then responded to the comments in a manner that revealed specific information about her case, her emotional state, and events that transpired during the attorney-client relationship. Although the attorney did not identify the client by name, he did reveal other information about the client that could have exposed her identity.
The Disciplinary Counsel investigated the client’s claims against the attorney, and found that they were not supported by any evidence. Nevertheless, the Disciplinary Counsel determined that the attorney’s disclosure of detailed information about the client violated his ethical obligation under the rules of professional conduct to protect her confidences and secrets. The Disciplinary Counsel also noted that the disclosure did not fall within any exception to the duty of confidentiality because the client’s statements did not result in any formal disciplinary charge against the lawyer, or other civil or criminal action when made.
As a result, the Disciplinary Counsel issued the attorney an informal admonition that his public response to the client was improper. The Counsel noted that the attorney’s actions could have resulted in filing charges and seeking a greater sanction, but reduced the penalty based on the attorney’s clean disciplinary history and cooperation in the investigation.
Professionals should avoid engaging in public disputes with clients. If a client criticizes a professional publicly, the professional should instead take efforts to work directly with the client to resolve any misunderstanding while bearing in mind the professional’s obligations pursuant to any malpractice insurance contract. Professionals must also be prepared to cooperate in any investigation into the client’s complaints, which may be used as an opportunity to present exculpatory evidence that otherwise must be held as confidential. Professionals who respond publicly, however, risk violating their ethical obligations of confidentiality, and exposing themselves to costly disciplinary action.