Ethics Question of the Month April 2024

Say it Ain’t So

Can you respond to negative online reviews written by clients?

The Situation

Attorney Brian is a transactional lawyer who handles small business matters. One day, he discovers the following online review by a former client:

Brian was my attorney in the sale of my small business. He practically guaranteed me that I would get a certain price for the business that I had worked hard to build up over many years. But that didn’t happen. The longer we negotiated, the more he lowered my expectations and then did what he could to pressure me to take a lower price than the business was worth.

Brian is shocked by this review because this is not what happened at all. He wants to respond on the website to correct the record, but he is concerned about violating his duty of confidentiality. He drafts and considers three different potential responses. They are:

  1. “I am sorry that you are unhappy with my representation of you in the sale of your business, but I remain open to discussing the reasons for your dissatisfaction and I am willing to meet with you privately to do so.”
  2. “As an attorney I am bound by The Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. Those rules prohibit me from revealing any client confidential information in this online setting. However, I want to make clear that I do not believe that your statement is a fair and accurate description of my representation of you in this matter.”
  3. “While I am uncomfortable responding to your comments in a public forum, I do want to respond to the specific allegations that you made. I did not guarantee that you would receive a certain price for your business. And I did not pressure you to do anything. You eventually accepted the reduced sale price after negotiations dragged on, and you willingly signed off on the sale documents.”

The Question

According to a 2016 Ethics Opinion, which of the three statements are permissible under the ethics rules? of the following is the most accurate?

The Correct Answer is B Of 48 Responses, 50% are correct.

  1. A 10
  2. B 24
  3. C 3
  4. D 11

The Explanation

The Professional Ethics Committee for the State Bar of Texas considered this question in Ethics Opinion 662 (2016). The Opinion relies on Rule 1.05 of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, which states:

(a) Confidential information includes both privileged information and unprivileged client information. Privileged information refers to the information of a client protected by the lawyer-client privilege of Rule 5.03 of the Texas Rules of Evidence or of Rule 5.03 of the Texas Rules of Criminal Evidence or by the principles of attorney-client privilege governed by Rule 5.01 of the Federal Rules of Evidence for United States Courts and Magistrates. Unprivileged client information means all information relating to a client or furnished by the client, other than privileged information, acquired by the lawyer during the course of or by reason of the representation of the client.

(b) Except as permitted by paragraphs (c) and (d), or as required by paragraphs (e), and (f), a lawyer shall not knowingly:

(1) Reveal confidential information of a client or a former client to:

(i) a person that the client has instructed is not to receive the information; or(ii) anyone else, other than the client, the clients representatives, or the members, associates, or employees of the lawyers law firm.

(2) Use confidential information of a client to the disadvantage of the client unless the client consents after consultations.

(3) Use confidential information of a former client to the disadvantage of the former client after the representation is concluded unless the former client consents after consultation or the confidential information has become generally known.

(4) Use privileged information of a client for the advantage of the lawyer or of a third person, unless the client consents after consultation.

(c) A lawyer may reveal confidential information:

(1) When the lawyer has been expressly authorized to do so in order to carry out the representation.

(2) When the client consents after consultation.

(3) To the client, the client's representatives, or the members, associates, and employees of the lawyer's firm, except when otherwise instructed by the client.

(4) When the lawyer has reason to believe it is necessary to do so in order to comply with a court order, a Texas Disciplinary Rule of Professional Conduct, or other law.

(5) To the extent reasonably necessary to enforce a claim or establish a defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client.

(6) To establish a defense to a criminal charge, civil claim or disciplinary complaint against the lawyer or the lawyer's associates based upon conduct involving the client or the representation of the client.

(7) When the lawyer has reason to believe it is necessary to do so in order to prevent the client from committing a criminal or fraudulent act.

(8) To the extent revelation reasonably appears necessary to rectify the consequences of a client's criminal or fraudulent act in the commission of which the lawyer's services had been used.

(9) To secure legal advice about the lawyer’s compliance with these Rules.

(10) When the lawyer has reason to believe it is necessary to do so in order to prevent the client from dying by suicide.

(d) A lawyer also may reveal unprivileged client information.

(1) When impliedly authorized to do so in order to carry out the representation.

(2) When the lawyer has reason to believe it is necessary to do so in order to:

(i) carry out the representation effectively;

(ii) defend the lawyer or the lawyer's employees or associates against a claim of wrongful conduct;

(iii) respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer's representation of the client; or

(iv) prove the services rendered to a client, or the reasonable value thereof, or both, in an action against another person or organization responsible for the payment of the fee for services rendered to the client.

Ethics Opinion 662 finds that:

absent an applicable exception found in Rule 1.05, a lawyer may not post a response to a negative review that reveals any information protected by the lawyer-client privilege, or otherwise relating to a client or furnished by the client, or acquired by the lawyer during the course of or by reason of the representation of the client. This is true even though the information may have become generally known.

Rule 1.05(c)(5) and Rule 1.05(d)(2)(ii) both permit revealing confidential information when necessary to “establish a defense . . . in a controversy between the lawyer and the client” or to “defend the lawyer. . . against a claim of wrongful conduct.” But those rules were written in an era when social media and online communications were inconceivable. The issue here is whether online reviews fall within the parameters of a “controversy between the lawyer and the client” or “claim of wrongful conduct” as contemplated by these rules. The Opinion finds that they do not:

It is the opinion of the Committee that each of the exceptions stated above applies only in connection with formal actions, proceedings or charges. The exceptions to Rule 1.05 cannot reasonably be interpreted to allow public disclosure of a former client’s confidences just because a former client has chosen to make negative comments about the lawyer on the internet. This approach is consistent with the guidance issued by the ethics authorities in other jurisdictions.

While the Opinion finds that a lawyer may not include any confidential information in its response, it notes with approval the language in Pennsylvania Bar Association Formal Ethics Opinion 2014-200 (2014), which states that a lawyer may respond to an online review along the lines of:

A lawyer’s duty to keep client confidences has few exceptions and in an abundance of caution I do not feel at liberty to respond in a point by point fashion in this forum. Suffice it to say that I do not believe that the post presents a fair and accurate picture of the events.

Responses 1 and 2 fall within the parameters of this response and do not reveal confidential information. Therefore, they are permissible. Response 3 reveals confidential information online and is therefore impermissible. The best response is B.

Bluebook Citation

Say it Ain’t So: Ethics Question of the Month - April 2024, Texas Center for Legal Ethics (2024), from https://legalethicstexas.com/ethics-question-of-the-month/ethics-question-of-the-month-april-2024/ (last visited Apr 16, 2024)