Many of us are perfectly comfortable publishing to an anonymous, online audience what we ate for dinner, our political views, relationship status, the argument we had with a cashier, or other personal details. This is not uncommon on various forms of social networking. But, when it comes to professional relationships, there are rules to follow. As a result, today’s professionals must pause before airing dirty laundry concerning a client or former client. Doing so risks violating ethical duties to former clients of confidentiality and can impair reputations.
The Supreme Court of Colorado recently issued an order directed to an attorney who engaged in an online exchange with former clients in two separate matters. In one matter, the attorney represented a couple in the negotiation of a lease for their business. The couple later ended the representation due to dissatisfaction with the service and filed a complaint with the better business bureau. The attorney publicly replied by shaming the couple and making accusations based on confidential information from the representation.
In the other matter, a married couple retained the attorney to assist with the husband’s post decree dispute after a divorce from his former spouse. The couple signed a fee agreement with the attorney that outlined specific costs for different tasks to be performed by the attorney. The attorney allowed the clients to make the payments in monthly installments, with an initial down payment, but did not explain that he reserved the right to demand full payment at his sole discretion. Additionally, the attorney demanded $200 for a filing fee, even though he did not take any action that required the fee to be paid. The attorney subsequently demanded that the clients make full payment in accordance with the fee agreement and threatened to withdraw in two days if the clients did not make full payment. Rather than make full payment, the clients terminated the representation. Nevertheless, the attorney did not return the $200 filing fee. Following termination of the representation, the couple posted complaints about the attorney on several websites. The attorney responded by posting his own comments about the clients that disclosed sensitive information obtained during the representation.
As a result of the attorney’s internet response, disciplinary charges were filed against the attorney for violating the duty of confidentiality to current and former clients, among other ethics violations. The Presiding Disciplinary Judge determined that the attorney had violated the rules of professional conduct and ordered an eighteen month suspension.
When a professional is criticized online, it is easy to become defensive. However, taking to public forums to retaliate is a risky proposition. Doing so can quickly lead to a disclosure of confidential facts in violation of ethics rules. Instead, professionals must take a more reserved approach. Professionals may choose to simply ignore criticism, respond in a constructive manner, or when permissible, reach out to the client directly to see if the misunderstanding can be resolved.