We’ve all been hit by the same nasty, destructive force…..online reviews that are either flat out untrue or are unfair and not accurate. As lawyers, we are particularly vulnerable to this because often, the results our clients experience (when they are unfavorable) are the result of circumstances, facts and judges that are out of our control.
Too often, the clients take it out on their own lawyer after the fact.
MY LAWYER WASN’T PREPARED!
MY LAWYER WAS SUCH A WIMP!
MY LAWYER DIDN’T DO ANYTHING!
MY LAWYER CONSPIRED WITH THE OTHER SIDE!
Now, first things first…and important to understand. Lawyers…especially those that practice in courtrooms…are trained and dedicated fighters…and the good ones are addicted to the win! Don’t mistake for a moment a lawyer’s friendliness with our opponent for any amount of weakness. Trust me, while it’s always fun to win….it’s even more fun to win or beat to a bloody pulp one of your colleagues in the community you see all the time. There is an honor in the fight that demands we fight like hell, and it’s just glorious when you win against a “friend”. But in any case, there are going to be winners and losers. And the sad reality is, it’s not always the one that’s “right” that wins. Sometimes the facts or the law just works against us and we take a loss.
It’s even worse as a lawyer. We see a bad review…a client that we’ve spent months or years working with and the client, upset with the result, begins a scorched earth campaign…attacking his own lawyer. The thing that makes these attacks so bad for lawyers is…our rules of professional ethics largely prevent us from responding in any meaningful way. When a review is just flat out wrong, filled with lies and misrepresentations, I cannot respond to that ad and tell the world that my former client is lying about me. So as lawyers, we’ve got an even harder fight than regular people or businesses to protect our reputation….without running afoul of professional ethics issues.
So What’s A Lawyer To Do When Improper Reviews Show Up on Google or Legal Sites?
The first step is to attempt to have them removed by contacting the site directly. This may work for the worst of the worst cases….but is harder still in other cases with “grey area” reviews. But the legal sites in particular are becoming more responsive to removing clearly improper reviews…especially given the particular issues like professional responsibility that we must contend with. One thing in particular…and the biggest “secret”…no matter how bad, angry, nasty and abusive your client is, either in person or with the reviews. Take some time to let the raw feelings wear down a bit and then pick up the phone and call the client. I’ve had many clients that felt particularly bad and took it out on my initially, but then after a few months they gain some perspective and we’re able to go back and fix our strained relationship. In the context of repairing a strained attorney/client relationship, I’m often able to help that client understand just how important their respect for me is and how seriously I take my job and reputation…and that’s often enough to help get those reviews, made in the heat of the moment…removed.
DJ Bennett Holdings v. Google
On February 23, 2018, the federal district court in the District of Columbia issued a very unfavorable decision that continues the utterly unfair and out of control environment that exists online and that causes so much harm. Regrettably, the opinion continues the blanket protections for libel and slander contained within the Communications (In) Decency ActL
Offended by a third-party blog post, Plaintiff Dawn Bennett (Bennett) and her company, DJ Bennett Holdings, LLC (DJ Bennett), sued Google LLC (Google) for failing to remove the post. They alleged three state-law causes of action: (1) defamation; (2) tortious interference with a business relationship; and (3) intentional infliction of emotional distress. The district court granted Google’s motion to dismiss, concluding that the Communications Decency Act (CDA), 47 U.S.C. § 230, immunized Google from liability for the publication of third-party content. We affirm.
Bennett owns DJ Bennett, a retailer of high-end sports apparel.1 Scott Pierson is the founder of The Executive SEO Agency, which provides search engine optimization and marketing (SEO) services. In March 2013, DJ Bennett hired Pierson to provide SEO services, seeking to increase its sales. After a few months, the parties’ relationship deteriorated and Pierson agreed to renegotiate his contract and accept slightly less than $20,000 as full payment for his services.
DJ Bennett paid Pierson in five installments but the fifth installment was returned by the post office as “undeliverable.” Thereafter, Pierson called DJ Bennett’s Vice President and General Merchandise Manager, Anderson McNeill. According to McNeill, Pierson was “hysterical” and “emotionally distraught.” Compl. ¶ 10. Pierson threatened DJ Bennett, declaring “I know things, I can do things, and I will shut down your website.” In response, McNeil explained that DJ Bennett had attempted to mail Pierson his final check but that it had been returned. Pierson then gave McNeil an alternative address, “the last payment was sent there, and [Pierson] cashed it.”
After the business relationship fell apart, Pierson wrote a blog titled “DJ Bennett-think-twice-bad business ethics” and published it on the internet through Google. Id. ¶ 11. Among other things, the blog asserted that (1) “DJ Bennett, the luxury sporting goods company, did not pay its employees or contractors”; (2) DJ Bennett was “ruthlessly run by Dawn Bennett who also operated Bennett Group Financial Services”; (3) Bennett falsely stated that Pierson had agreed to reduce his hours “as justification for reducing his final invoice by $3,200”; (4) Pierson’s counsel described Bennett as “judgment proof”; and (5) “DJ Bennett owes thousands and thousands to many people.” Id. ¶¶ 11-12. The blog concluded: “I urge you to think twice before giving your patronage to DJ Bennett.com . . . . The website is pretty, but the person running the show is quite contemptible.” Id