When Ethics and Online Reviews Collide

Before making dinner reservations, hiring a dog-walker, going to the movies or finding a plumber many consumers utilize online review websites to help make an informed decision. Sites like Angie’s List, Yelp, Consumer Reports and even Facebook provide the opportunity for an online community to publish a review for all to see. Professionals fall into the class of other service-providers who may be reviewed online. These reviews may serve as a nice source of referral business; they can also tarnish a professional’s reputation instantaneously. In the case of the latter, one attorney recently took an offensive approach by responding to an online review written by a former client. The result was undoubtedly not what the attorney intended.

Recently an attorney learned firsthand the significant implications of posting information on the internet. According, to an opinion issued by the Georgia Supreme Court, the attorney represented a client in an uncontested divorce. Eventually, the client terminated the attorney over a fee dispute. The client took her disapproval one step further and voiced her frustration in a negative online review on three consumer websites. When the attorney discovered the negative reviews, she decided that a response was in order. But, in posting the responses, the attorney divulged personal and confidential information about the client that she obtained during the course of her representation. In particular, the attorney identified the client by name, identified where she worked, stated how much she paid the attorney and stated that the client had a boyfriend.

The client then filed a grievance against the attorney. The matter was heard by a Special Master whose report was accepted by the Supreme Court. The Special Master concluded that the attorney violated the state’s rules of ethics when she disclosed confidential information on the internet. As result a public reprimand was issued by the Supreme Court against the attorney.

It bears repeating that the internet is a dangerous medium for communication. Attorneys must exercise extreme care when posting to internet websites particularly when it comes to client information. Here, an alternative available to the attorney would have been to contact the former client off-line in an effort to reach an amicable resolution. In any case, engaging in an online, public debate with a former client is only recommended to those attorneys intent on attracting a malpractice suit or a grievance complaint.