Thomson v. Jane Doe: Why lawyers should want anonymous reviews

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By: Jabez LeBret

Not everyone wants to make his or her identity public when leaving a review. Even when someone feels inclined to leave a positive review, specifics about the case may dissuade public admission of how helpful your legal services were. For example, imagine a criminal defense attorney’s client leaving a review that says, “I’m so grateful my lawyer got me off that cocaine charge.”

It is highly unlikely, though not impossible, that the reviewer would say this publicly with his or her identity visible. There are many similar scenarios where someone might shy away from leaving a review tied to a name, especially in cases involving complex business litigation cases or real estate transactions.

This means a law firm should embrace anonymous reviews to open the door for more positive reviews. Of course, this also means increased risk.

For those who need to catch up on the recent story regarding lawyer Deborah Thomson, read on for more details. For those already up to speed, feel free to jump down to the next section.

What happened

Here is a link to the lengthy summary by Legal Tech News.

Deborah Thomson is a family law attorney practicing in Florida. She has great online reviews and has been licensed since 1997.

After receiving a negative review from an anonymous user, Thomson refuted the legitimacy of the post and requested that Avvo disclose the reviewer’s identity. However, the Washington State Court of Appeals found that:

The trial court applied the proper standard in reviewing Thomson’s motion. Under that standard, Thomson’s motion must fail. As Thomson freely admits, she presented no evidence to support her motion. Therefore, the trial court properly denied Thomson’s motion for failure to make a prima facie showing of defamation.

The end result is that Thomson’s request was denied, and Avvo is not compelled to release the identity of the reviewer.

Who won and who lost

Some people count this ruling as a win for First Amendment rights. Others claim the decision allows people to say whatever they want without any repercussions, like the common example of the man who shouts “fire” in a crowded theater without consequences.

The real issue, however, goes beyond the question of who won or lost; there are more important angles to this story

Today’s law firm client lives online. Everyone uses the Internet to access directions, find information, and read reviews. Any lawyer who thinks online reviews can be avoided is ignoring reality.

In a society where users are encouraged to leave reviews—consider the popularity of Yelp, for example—and where it’s possible to access the Internet using watches and smartphones, lawyers are going to be reviewed; there’s no doubt about it. These reviewers will include happy clients, unhappy clients, and, unfortunately, people who were never clients to begin with.

The category of a reviewer who was never a client can be broken down into the following sub-categories: 1) someone who tried to hire you and, for whatever reason, did not, 2) the opposing counsel’s client, or 3) the malicious attacker, often a competitor or someone who simply dislikes you.

Actions you should take when you get an anonymous bad review

What is most striking about the Thompson case is the amount of energy she put forth to reveal the identity of the negative reviewer.

For a moment, let’s assume Thomson is right, and this person is not and has never been her client. What could she have done?

If you receive a review from someone you are certain was not a client, here is what you should do:

Google the review – This is your first step. Take a couple sentences from the middle of the review and Google each sentence individually. This will help you determine if this review is elsewhere online or if it was left on multiple law firms’ profiles.

There is also a chance the person left the review somewhere, possibly on Yelp or Google+, without preserving anonymity. If you find the person, send a nice letter demanding that he or she take down the review.

Write a response – Be cautious when responding to negative reviews for two reasons: 1) possible ethics violations and 2) legitimizing the review. If the reviewer was not, in fact, a client, you are not at risk of revealing confidential information because you don’t have any. Still, be mindful of saying something that might be considered an ethics violation in your state. The bigger issue is that, by responding to the negative review, you are showing the review site’s algorithm that the post has some merit.

If you decide to respond, keep it simple and avoid including too many details. Explain that you do not believe this person was ever a client but welcome him or her to call your office so you can rectify the situation.

Contact the company where the review is – First, get all your facts in place. What details can you provide that might help prove that this person, though anonymous, was never a client? You may not have a lot to go on, but do your best to find any evidence you can.

Then, flag the review on the profile site. Keep in mind, however, that not every company treats flagged reviews the same. Here is a brief summary of the protocol at a handful of popular sites.

Google – When you flag a review on Google, the company will send you an email. You may have to report the review a few times to get traction.

Avvo – If you contact Avvo to report a review, a member of their team will do research, which usually involves contacting the person who left the review to verify the validity of the claim.

Yelp – Once you flag a review on Yelp, you will receive an email with a very important case number. Do not lose this number; you will need it to submit your request for disputing the review.

Get more positive reviews – In some states, when you solicit a review, you are ethically responsible for the content of the review, so check with your state’s ethics guidelines first. This does not preclude you from asking, but it does require you to keep an eye on the reviews you request.

Either way, the best solution for fighting a negative review is to get more positive reviews. Focus on clients who like you and ask them to give you reviews first. Then, watch that negative review you were worried about sink further down into the sea of positive comments about your services.

Why you want anonymous reviews

You lose your opportunity to obtain positive reviews when you force clients to share their identity when leaving a review. The possibility that you will need to deal with a false anonymous review should not outweigh the opportunity to establish a better web presence.

You are going to get reviews no matter what you do. So, focus your energy on getting positive reviews. Giving people options, like Yelp, Google+, and the ability to post anonymously on Avvo, will increase the total amount of reviews you get.

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