On “Defamation”

As lawyers who represent consumers know, the wave of public opinion spilling online via client reviews can be a bit, well, upsetting. Legal services are the fruit of the brow, and often tied up closely in a lawyer’s self-identity. Having someone post an online tirade hits very close to home.

Of course, there’s no reason that legal practices should be held to a different standard than other sorts of businesses, most of which have adapted to – and even improved themselves by virtue of – the world of online user reviews.

And as I tell lawyers, it’s really important to get an objective read on a negative review before flipping out and filing a defamation lawsuit. This isn’t just because there are some unique risks to filing defamation suits not found in most other causes of action. Rather, it’s that lawyers aggrieved by negative client reviews aren’t usually the best judges of whether they actually have an actionable claim.

For example, let’s say a client writes this about you:

She is the most unethical, incompetent lawyer you’ll ever come across. I wouldn’t even call her a lawyer, she’s a FRAUD.

Being on the receiving end of that would feel bad, right? But it’s not defamatory; it’s simply a hyperbolic statement of opinion. Contrary to seemingly widespread belief, “defamation” isn’t “something that someone wrote about me online that I don’t like.” It must be based on a materially false statement of fact.

Of course, since I’m writing about this, you know what happened: the attorney who received the review above – Texas immigration lawyer Sherin Thawer – sued the reviewer.

What makes this noteworthy isn’t just that a thin-skinned attorney filed a baseless defamation claim. It’s not even that she did so in Texas, where the presence of one of the nation’s strongest anti-SLAPP laws means that she’s most likely going to be paying the defendant’s attorney’s fees.

No, the irony here is that the reviewer may have, if anything, gone light on Thawer. Because according to this report, she lied to her client, allowing him to be ruled against in absentia and subjected to a deportation order. Now the Texas disciplinary authorities are going after her for additional sanctions (she is already suspended from the practice of law in Texas).

I don’t know about you, but that would rate a scathing review in my book.

One thought on “On “Defamation””

  1. Another excellent post from Josh King. I’m not an attorney, but have plenty of experience handling negative reviews, since I previously served as customer service manager for an auto group. My advice for handling a negative review:

    1. Don’t take it personally: Taking personal offense leads to rash decisions.
    2. Always respond: Your response is for the next person reading the review, not the writer. Don’t let a negative review be the only thing people find about you.
    3. Take it off-line: Give your contact info and ask the writer to contact you for further discussion. Don’t let a negative conversation drag on in public view.
    4. Take responsibility: Even if it wasn’t your fault, a personal “I’ll fix it” helps reassure people.
    5. Apologize: A sincere “I’m sorry” is a great way to open the door for a disgruntled client to keep talking (privately), even if all you’re sorry about is that they lost.
    6. Be sincere: An insincere or flippant response can kill your online reputation. Be sure to reread your response carefully for tone prior to posting.
    7. Ask a now-satisfied reviewer to revise: If you do get the issue resolved to the client’s satisfaction, don’t hesitate to ask them to update their review. Having your score raised from a “1” to a “5” with an explanation of how you fixed the problem is better for your reputation than getting a “5” in the first place.
    8. Follow the review forum’s rules: Remember, if the reviewer has not followed the rules, you may be able to get the review removed.
    9. Put a review request process in place: If you don’t ask, your happiest clients will forget to review you, leaving only disgruntled people to write your online reputation.
    10. You can’t please everyone: If you have more than a few reviews, a perfect score is suspect. Embrace your bad reviews and counter them with perfect responses.

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