Aug. 19, 2020 – In the world of Angie’s List, Avvo, and other websites that provide online reviews of those providing various services, a lawyer who has multiple positive reviews may draw in more clients. Is it ethical to encourage clients to leave reviews?
My clients sometimes tell me that they found me through online lawyer rating sites. Like most online shoppers, they read and are influenced by reviews posted by current or former clients. Most of my clients tell me they are happy with my services, but I wish that more of them would leave reviews.
Is there something I can do, consistent with the Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys, to incent my clients to leave reviews – preferably positive ones?
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The primary rule lawyers need to be aware of in this situation is SCR 20:7.2(b), which prohibits a lawyer from giving “anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services. …”
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That rule was discussed in a previous Ethical Dilemma – that SCR 20:7.2(b) prohibits a plan for a lawyer to enter clients in a drawing for a prize in return for the current or former client “liking” the lawyer’s social media postings.
The recent Texas Legal Ethics Opinion 685 (2020) considered a much simpler plan – simply asking clients to leave a positive review. The opinion considered the following scenario:
An online search engine includes a feature that allows users to post reviews of business organizations and professionals, such as law firms and lawyers. The lawyer has no control over the search engine, which allows users to post a “star” rating of the lawyer and make comments that can be seen by other users of the search engine. An aggregate star rating of the lawyer appears on the search engine when a user searches the name of the lawyer. Star ratings and comments left by individual users can also be seen by users of the search engine.
The lawyer desires a favorable star rating on the search engine and user comments that cast the lawyer in a positive light. To achieve this, the lawyer asks current and former clients to leave positive comments and favorable star ratings. The lawyer does not pay or provide anything of value in exchange for these favorable reviews.
Unsurprisingly, the opinion concludes “that, under the Rules, a Texas lawyer may ask current and former clients to post favorable star ratings and online reviews about the lawyer. The lawyer must not, however, encourage anyone to make false or misleading statements or statements that the person has no factual basis for making.”
That is to say, the rules do not prohibit a lawyer from simply asking a client who is happy with the services provided by the lawyer to post a favorable review, as long as it is truthful and as long as the lawyer does not give the client anything of value in return for the review.
A more aggressive plan was considered in New York State Ethics Opinion 1052 (2015):
1. A lawyer would like more of his clients to rate him on Avvo, a website that allows clients to rate their lawyers with one to five stars. To rate a lawyer, a client would visit the Avvo website, look up the lawyer by name, and submit a review. A sample review might say, “I could not be more pleased with Ms. X. She is thorough, honest, caring and available. Her prices are reasonable compared to others. She specializes in elder law and knows her specialty,” or “Attorney Z did a great job on my case. He was very upfront about what to expect and he got very good results. Highly recommended.” (Many reviews are longer.) Clients also rate the lawyer on a scale of 1 to 5 for five categories: “Overall rating,” “Trustworthy,” “Responsive,” “Knowledgeable,” and “Kept me informed,” and clients either check or do not check a box saying that they would “recommend” the lawyer. (For more information about Avvo ratings and how they are calculated, see http://www.avvo.com/support/avvo_rating.)
2. After a client writes a review online, the review is read internally at Avvo before it is posted on the website. Once Avvo has approved a review, it will be posted under the heading “Client Reviews” on the attorney’s page on the Avvo website and will become part of the attorney’s profile. The inquiring attorney is apparently confident that if clients take the time to rate him, he will receive high ratings and positive reviews, which will help to boost his reputation and encourage other clients to hire him. The inquirer therefore wants to offer clients a $50 credit on their bills for legal fees if they rate him on Avvo. The credit would not be contingent on the content of a review, the scores in the ratings, or whether a client checks the box recommending the lawyer to others.
The question here is whether the $50 credit constitutes giving “something of value” in return for a “recommendation,” which would violate SCR 20:7.2(b).1 On these facts, the New York State Ethics Committee answered in the negative:
Rule 7.2(a) does not apply because the inquirer is asking for a rating, not a recommendation. The inquirer says he will give a $50 credit to any client who rates the lawyer, without regard to the content of the rating and without regard to whether the client recommends the lawyer to others. A client thus remains free to give the lawyer a bad rating and remains free not to check the box saying that she would recommend the lawyer to others. Moreover, the inquirer is not making the $50 credit contingent on whether some future person retains the lawyer as a result of the rating. Thus, the credit is not a “reward” for making a recommendation “resulting in employment by a client.”
Because the lawyer cannot condition the payment on receiving a positive review, the lawyer may end up paying for negative reviews, but this is necessary to avoid the prohibitions contained in SCR 20:7.2(b).2
The New York opinion takes an arguably aggressive stance on the rules. A lawyer or firm may be tempted to couch the request for a rating in a less than neutral manner, in a way that clearly implies that the lawyer is requesting a favorable review, or clients may interpret the offer of a $50 credit as implying an expectation of a favorable review.
A lawyer taking such an approach would be well advised to make clear in writing that the $50 statement credit is not conditioned on the content of the review in any way.
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1 The equivalent New York Rule is 7.2(a).
2 Further, if the client were to leave a negative review, the lawyer would be constrained in responding to that negative review, as discussed in a previous Ethical Dilemma.