No one is immune from the Yelpification of the world, not even lawyers.

Opinions from strangers, posted online and often anonymously, have crept into nearly every facet of our lives. Reviews factor into our decisions about where to dine and what to eat, which new gadgets to buy, the movies we watch and, increasingly, the professionals we hire.  

Stellar reviews generate business, just as bad reviews can drive away potential clients. And bad reviews happen to good attorneys, many of whom are still unsure about whether they should solicit public feedback from clients and are in the dark when it comes to determining how or if they ought to respond to online smears.

“What can I do?” Charleston family law attorney Gregory Forman said when asked if he’d ever post a rebuttal beneath a review. “You know what they say about wrestling with pigs: You both get dirty, but the pig enjoys it.”

Still, a few lawyers have pushed back against bad reviews. Some dragged former clients to court in an attempt to repair damaged reputations. Others fired back online.

The results have been mixed.

In Florida, divorce lawyer Ann-Marie Giustibelli won a $350,000 damages award against a client who posted libelous reviews on several sites, including Google and Avvo, one of the top players in the world of online legal services.

An appellate court upheld the award, finding that the reviews, which alleged that Giustibelli had lied about her fees, contained false factual allegations.  

But vindication has eluded other lawyers, such as Terry Spencer of Utah. Spencer sued a client who called him the “worst ever” in a Yelp review. But a trial judge and an appellate court killed the defamation suit, finding that the review was “mere opinion.”

In another case, a lawyer asked a Washington State court to force Avvo to reveal the identity of an anonymous user who posted a negative review. An appellate court ruled in Avvo’s favor and refused to enforce the lawyer’s subpoena, concluding that she failed to prove she had a valid defamation case.

“States are still kind of figuring it out,” said Avvo’s chief legal officer, Josh King of Seattle. He added that the company gets six to 10 subpoenas a year from lawyers who are trying to build defamation suits and want to unmask their anonymous reviewers. And he’s seeing more subpoenas every year.

When Avvo receives an unmasking request, its representatives notify the reviewer in question about the subpoena and ask him to provide proof that he was a client. If there’s no response, the review is removed.

“About half the time I don’t get any response,” King said.  

But if the reviewer replies and provides a fee agreement or other proof that they were, in fact, a client, Avvo will defend the reviewer’s privacy and the lawyer typically backs down, according to King.

He added that Avvo is unique in that its employees check reviews before they’re posted online. The moderators are looking for details that would suggest that the reviewer worked with the attorney in question.

“Attorneys probably overestimate the incidence of fake reviews,” King said, “but they are definitely an issue that all sites that deal in reviews have to think about.”

‘Stay out of the fray’

While some have taken action, most attorneys who feel the sting of a negative review do nothing, either out of fear that they might run afoul of ethics rules regarding client confidentiality or because they would rather avoid entering into what would likely become a messy back-and-forth preserved online for all to see.

In 2014, Chicago employment lawyer Betty Tsamis was reprimanded for revealing confidential information about a client while responding to a review on Avvo. She wrote that she felt “badly for [the client], but his own actions in beating up a female co-worker are what caused the consequences he is now so upset about.”

The South Carolina Bar has not directly addressed the issue of online reviews, but “it’s just a matter of time,” said Bill Higgins, chair of the bar’s Ethics Advisory Committee.

“To some extent, you have to rise above it,” Higgins added, referring to bad reviews.

When you search Google for Charles Grose, a criminal defense lawyer in Greenwood, you’ll see that he has one review — and it’s not good: “Go somewhere else,” wrote a reviewer named Wesley Lester.

Grose said he’s never heard of Lester.

He’s also had to deal with a negative review on Facebook in which a poster tore into him for representing alleged sex offenders.

And once, an online marketer looking for clients called Grose’s firm and brought up his negative Google review during the sales pitch. (Online reviews have spawned a repair-your-reputation industry that promises to remove bad posts — for a fee, of course.)

Grose didn’t buy what the marketer was selling. And he’s never responded to the bad reviews. They’re just floating out there on their own.

“I’m going to stay out of the fray,” he said. “I think that’s just the better thing to do.”

‘Embrace the inevitable’

In North Carolina, a subcommittee of the State Bar’s Ethics Committee has been crafting a proposed ethics opinion that is supposed to address the pitfalls of responding to online reviews, according to the bar’s ethics counsel, Alice Mine.

“The concern is that the lawyer may forget in the heat of the moment to not disclose confidential information,” she said. “You can’t use confidential information you’ve received to respond. You have to tread pretty delicately.”

That’s true even when clients spill private details about their cases in their reviews, according to Mine. She said a client’s disclosure should not be construed as a waiver for a lawyer to discuss confidential info in a rebuttal.

“But that doesn’t mean you can’t respond at all,” she said.

Criminal defense lawyer Woody White of Wilmington, North Carolina, who also serves as chair of the New Hanover County Commission, has replied to some negative Google reviews, one of which was related to his political service. He said he tried to have the post removed because it had nothing to do with his law firm, but was unsuccessful.

Another Google reviewer accused him of making “personal attacks” and stated of his firm:  “It seems they are very interested in your money, but are not really interested in you or your needs.”

White’s response was succinct: “I did not represent this person and do not know who this is.”

Asked if he would respond to a bad review from an identifiable client, White said he “certainly would.” But he stressed that his response would be general. For instance, he might state that he and the members of his firm work hard for their clients and regret that this particular client was unhappy with their services.

“We made a decision to embrace the inevitable and so we welcome reviews and think they’re somewhat helpful to people looking to get more information about who they should hire,” White said. “They provide a glimpse into the type of law firm we run and, overall, we think it’s a positive thing.”

Connie Vetter, a LGBT lawyer in Charlotte who has a perfect rating on Google with 13 five-star reviews, said when a client “seems especially pleased” with her services she’ll send an email inviting them to write about their experience on Google and Facebook.

But not everyone gets that email.

“I think we all know that you can do your best work possible and still have somebody be unhappy,” Vetter said.

Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @SCLWBantz

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