Fake online reviews can be devastating to your legal practice. Popular review platforms and legal directories such as Google, Yelp, Avvo, and Martindale-Hubbell are becoming increasingly influential sources for potential clients seeking to secure legal counsel.
If you or your law firm is the target of a fake online review, there are several critical steps to take:
- Consider any confidentiality and ethical responsibilities which might apply before deciding whether and how you can respond.
- Attempt to confirm if the review is genuine or fake by consulting business records, investigating the user account history and other contributions, and analyzing the substance of the review.
- Preserve evidence of the review, the damage caused by the review, and its effect on your law firm’s reputation.
- If warranted, flag and report the review for Terms of Service (ToS) violations to the review platform or directory on which it is posted.
- Search and monitor other review platforms and directories for similar fake reviews about you or your firm.
- If necessary, consult with an experienced Internet defamation attorney to explore options for legal action to unmask the publisher’s true identity, cause removal of the review, and obtain appropriate compensation.
The attorneys at Minc Law have extensive experience representing other lawyers and law firms who have been subjected to anonymous and pseudonymous online attacks, including attacks perpetrated through the manufacturing of fake online reviews.
We not only seek to remediate the problem, we also educate and advise our clients on their ethical obligations as it pertains to their ability to respond to online reviews so that they can do what is necessary to mitigate any damage the reviews are inflicting while the legal process is utilized to achieve a more permanent solution.
In this article, we will provide tips on identifying fake online reviews and discuss the steps a lawyer can and should take in response to such reviews, with careful attention towards ethical rules and considerations which might be applicable depending on the specific circumstances presented.
How to Spot Fake Reviews of Your Law Firm
Before responding to or attempting to remove a less-than-stellar online review, it is critical to understand how to spot fake reviews. In very short summary, to identify fake online reviews, we recommend that you:
- Investigate the user account and profile from which the review was published for signs of inauthenticity;
- Analyze the substance of the review; and
- Consult your business records to determine if the review reflects a genuine marketplace interaction.
Who Are the Usual Suspects Behind Fake Law Firm Reviews?
Bad actors use fake reviews to dissuade others from retaining the services offered by your firm. The not readily identifiable bad actors behind fake law firm reviews may be another firm or practitioner seeking to gain an unfair advantage, an adverse party in previous or ongoing matters, a disgruntled ex-employee masquerading as an actual client, or some other third party who holds a personal grudge against you or your firm.
Although exceedingly rare, the bad actor could also be an actual client who is misrepresenting his or her experience with you or your firm. These misrepresentations can take several forms, such as:
- The client publishes several reviews under different user accounts for the purposes of deceptively masquerading as a multitude of dissatisfied clients and driving down your star ratings on platforms that use a rating system.
- The client publishes one review but materially misrepresents whatever the review complains about.
Even when your suspicions strongly suggest otherwise, until the true culprit is known, we strongly recommend treating every review as if written by an actual client. This will dictate that you proceed with appropriate caution in what steps you may take in response.
How to Identify a Fake Law Firm Review?
Our experience strongly suggests that business owners have good instincts on if a review is completely fake or somehow materially false.
For small to medium-sized law firms, it is much easier to recall if a review truthfully details actual events and interactions. For larger firms, it is likely more difficult due to the sheer volume of client interactions. But there are also some red flags that all attorneys and law firms should know and consider to effectively identify fake online reviews.
Consult Business Records
If for no other reason than the ability to run adequate conflict checks, all law firms should maintain records of all previous and current clients as well as all individuals who consulted with the firm about potential representation. Ideally, these records are kept in a searchable database.
You should search that database to see if the username for the review matches a legitimate client or potential client. However, be aware that there is nothing unlawful about publishing a review under a pseudonym, so long as the choice of that pseudonym is not intended to communicate a false inference as to true identity in a way that impacts the defamatory ‘gist’ or ‘sting’ of the review.
Assuming the username itself offers no clues, examine the substance of the review to determine if the experience represents an actual interaction with, or previous complaint from, an actual client you represented or a potential client who inquired about your services.
If you are not able to match the review to any client following this initial due diligence, and reasons for suspicion of nefarious intent feel more justified, we still recommend that you proceed under the assumption that it may be an actual client.
Research the Account That Published the Review
While not always, fake reviews tend to come from what we call “one-off” accounts. In these scenarios, the account is created on the same day the review is published and it is never used again. Sometimes, multiple accounts are created and multiple reviews are published in quick succession.
While you will not be able to determine the date of account creation by looking at the review, you can normally view the “contributions” made by the account to the Google platform. Contributions can come in the form of reviews, ratings, photographs, answers, and many other categories of possible account activity. “One-off” accounts will normally only have one contribution and that contribution is a fake negative review of you or your law firm. This is normally a big red flag.
Another red flag would be where multiple accounts are used that have two or three other reviews as contributions, and those other reviews are for the same business, perhaps a competitor.
Look For Suspicious Usernames
Sarcastic usernames, like “Seymore Butts” and “Ben Dover” are favorites of people who post fake reviews. Again, there is nothing unlawful in using a pseudonym, even one which could be considered offensive or immature. But people who add that sting to the review are normally doing so with malicious intent, as opposed to an actual client who may leave a review under “John Smith” seeking anonymity to protect his confidentiality.
Consider the Timing of the Review
If your firm has consistently received high ratings and positive reviews but then suddenly experiences a barrage of one-star reviews in quick succession, that is certainly indicative of a coordinated attack.
Look for a pattern in the timing of the reviews. Suspicions should increase if there is an apparent regular interval (e.g., daily or weekly) or if all of the reviews were published on one day or over the course of some small period (such as a week or month). Any of those scenarios are cause for legitimate concern and suspicion.
Analyze the Substance of the Review
Analyze the substance of the review itself. Does the review accurately describe the services you offer? Does it even relate to the type of interactions you have with clients? Does it perhaps, directly or indirectly, promote a competitor? Does it appear hastily constructed with spelling and grammatical errors? All of these questions can offer insight into whether the review is legitimate or fake.
If the review speaks to some services you do not offer or describe interactions you never have, then it should be flagged for further inquiry. If the review directly or indirectly promotes a competitor, you should most definitely be suspicious.
Reviews which are sloppily constructed, and use very general language, may be suggestive of a coordinated hit-job by some retained service (often foreign) that was hired to drive down your reviews and ratings. Star ratings and the average composite they form are, in many ways, more important than the reviews themselves.
If your star rating falls below a certain composite average (4.0 out of 5.0 is usually considered the critical threshold) then prospective clients likely will not even bother to read the narrative reviews. They will simply find a lawyer or law firm with a more attractive rating. Think of star ratings like curb appeal in a real estate transaction, and think of the narrative reviews as the home’s interior which prospective buyers will not bother touring if the curb appeal immediately turns them away.
What Other Considerations Should Be Taken into Account With Fake Law Firm Reviews?
You know your law firm and its actual clients better than anyone else. If you genuinely suspect that a review is fake, there is good reason to believe you are right. However, proceeding based solely on suspicions as to who is the actual culprit of the fake review can be very risky for lawyers and certain other professionals, such as medical doctors. Stop and think before you react, and always proceed with caution.
Even putting aside confidentiality concerns which do not apply to most professions, misplacing blame could have devastating consequences. If you have a dissatisfied client you suspect of embellishing the review or a disgruntled ex-employee you suspect manufactured the review, you do not want to alert them to negative reviews which they may not have published.
If nothing else, you would not want them knowing that this is a potential point of vulnerability for you. They could also freely share the negative reviews with others, not worrying about being held liable as the publisher.
How to Prove a Review of Your Law Firm is Fake
If you believe your law firm is the target of fake reviews, it is crucial to consider options through the legal process as well as available methods of self-help to address the problem. Whatever you decide, there are ethical and practical considerations to carefully consider.
What Should You Do if You Believe a Review of Your Law Firm is Fake?
Before commencing with legal or non-legal action, you will need to act quickly to preserve evidence, consider flagging or reporting the review, and investigate.
Preserve the Evidence
Preservation software and services (such as Page Vault) are best, but if you do not have the means to do any better, take screenshots. Capture the review itself and the user account page (you can access this by clicking on the profile picture). Be sure that the screenshot includes the full URL for both pages. If the URL is too long to include in the screenshot, then save it separately.
Save any and all alerts you received for the review (e.g. Google will normally send you an email alerting you of a new review). If the review was brought to your attention by a third party, document that interaction. Carefully monitor your leads and new client inquiries for any correlated changes in patterns or trajectories.
Actual damages are always difficult to prove in such circumstances because you will be forced to prove a negative – i.e. someone did not hire you because they read the review. Whatever evidence, no matter how minuscule, you can offer as to the review influencing someone else’s decision to hire you could prove critical should litigation be necessary.
Flag & Report the Review
If you believe the review somehow violates the platform’s ToS, report it to the website or directory where it is posted. Even truthful or non-actionable opinion reviews published by actual clients could potentially violate the ToS for a variety of reasons.
Each platform has a different ToS, which can be easily found, normally on its homepage. The ToS is an agreement that binds each user who creates an account on the platform.
None of this is to say that the platforms are going to play judge and jury on what is true or false in light of the ToS prohibiting the publication of defamatory statements. They will not. Most will tell you to return with a court order which makes a final finding on that question.
However, if the review is off-topic and clearly a personal attack, then application of the ToS may solve your problem. For instance, if an ex-girlfriend leaves you a one-star review claiming you went on four dates and then you ghosted her, the review should be removed because it does not reflect a marketplace interaction.
Some platforms also may take the time to investigate the user accounts and remove multiple reviews from the same source. Unfortunately, this would require more than five minutes of their attention, which can be very difficult to obtain given the volume of flags and reports they receive.
Search & Monitor Other Review Platforms & Legal Directories
If you suspect a fraudulent review on one platform, it is also wise to monitor other popular review platforms and legal directories for similar attacks. Popular attorney and law firm review websites and directories include:
Consider purchasing a monitoring service or creating a free Google Alert to track your (and your firm’s) online presence, so that you can spot and appropriately respond to negative fake reviews as quickly as possible.
What Steps Can You Take to Bolster Your Potential Claims?
When preserving evidence, it is important to document any damages suffered as a result of the reviews.
For example, consider documenting the number of leads and inquiries your firm sees after the review was published. If you receive an average of 50 inquiries a month, and that number drops to 25 after the fake review is published, the loss of business might be attributable to the review.
Also, document if other clients mention the bad review or terminate services because of the review, and any other negative repercussions you experience as a result of the review.
If you need to litigate to get the fake review removed or to unmask the identity of the reviewer, you may need to prove that you experienced damages as a result of the review.
Can Lawyers Respond to Online Reviews?
Unlike most other professions, Attorneys have ethical responsibilities which must be taken into consideration when responding to online reviews. The American Bar Association (ABA) has determined that confidentiality rules apply to online law firm reviews.
Specifically, Rule 1.6 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (or whatever equivalent rule applies in states which do not follow the model rules) governs how an attorney can respond to online reviews. On such sites, Attorneys are prohibited from disclosing information relating to a client’s representation in their response. Even if the client reveals confidential and personally-identifying information in the review, the attorney cannot respond in a way that compromises the client’s confidentiality.
The ABA suggests that attorneys avoid responding to negative reviews as a best practice – because responding could draw even more unwanted attention to the negative review.
If the attorney does elect to respond, the attorney can invite the client to contact them privately to discuss the matter further. In responding, the attorney must be careful to avoid revealing information that relates to a client matter or that could reasonably lead to the discovery of confidential information.
When dealing with negative online reviews, it is best to err on the side of caution. Always consider the pros and cons of responding, and whether your response could potentially lead to disciplinary action.
We strongly recommend consulting an experienced Internet defamation attorney or qualified ethics attorney to determine how to best respond to unwanted or fake reviews.
Legal Action That Can Be Taken Against Fake Law Firm Reviews
If you have formulated a sufficiently good faith basis to believe a review or series of reviews is fake, you must decide quickly whether you want to take legal action. In many situations, litigation may be necessary to unmask the identity of the culprit(s).
The available claims typically have very short statutes of limitations. Most states require defamation claims, for instance, to be brought within one year of publication. Moreover, best practices dictate not just filing the complaint but also identifying and naming the defendant(s) within the statute of limitations.
What Steps Can You Take Against a Bad Law Firm Review if You Want to Sue?
Although many alternative claims can be explored, fake reviews most commonly give rise to a cause of action for defamation. In most states, a plaintiff must generally prove the following four elements to succeed on a defamation claim:
- A false statement of fact of and concerning the plaintiff,
- Communicated or published by the defendant to a third party,
- With the requisite degree of fault, and
- Resulting in damages to the plaintiff.
Because it is a speech-related claim, there are a plethora of available defenses to defamation. For instance, a one-star review that lacks any commentary may be considered opinion – a constitutional defense – and not actionable regardless of who published the review. Jurisprudence on this question is not yet settled.
What Should I Do if the Publisher is Anonymous?
If you do not know who the culprit is, you will need to file a John Doe lawsuit to unmask the identity of an anonymous publisher. Some states have specific procedures for filing such a lawsuit, but most do not. Remember, we highly advise not to guess. Use the legal process to gather the necessary evidence so that by the time you name the defendant the “who done it” question has already been answered.
Video: How to Identify Internet Users Behind Anonymous Harassment & Defamation:
Pre-suit filing requirements which apply to all defamation claims in certain states, such as states with retraction statutes, can be difficult or even impossible to comply with if the identity of the defendant is not known. After all, how can you demand a retraction from someone if you are not able to deliver that notice?
Consulting with an experienced Internet defamation lawsuit attorney on best practices in such situations may be necessary.
Be Aware of Anti-SLAPP Statutes
Many states have anti-SLAPP statutes to deter questionable speech-related claims which may have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression. These statutes provide a procedural mechanism which allows the defendant, even prior to being unmasked, to freeze all discovery and ask the court to evaluate the merits of the claims.
Specifically, the court’s job at this point is to determine whether the statements at issue are capable of a defamatory meaning (i.e. not substantially true or privileged) and whether the plaintiff can support the claims with sufficient evidence. The inquiry is more intensive and the court’s review is broader than a typical motion to dismiss.
If a plaintiff loses an anti-SLAPP motion, not only is the case dismissed but the plaintiff is normally made to pay the defendant’s legal fees.
If filing in a state with an anti-SLAPP statute, extra care should be taken to ensure the complaint sufficiently states a cause of action regardless of the identity of the defendant, and that evidence is available to make a prima facie showing on each element of the claim.
When Should You Avoid Suing Someone For a Bad Law Firm Review?
Thoroughly consider and analyze your reasons for suing before filing a defamation lawsuit. Attorneys normally need not be reminded that litigation is not always in one’s best interest, even when the claims are unequivocally meritorious.
Not only are defamation lawsuits costly and time-consuming, they can also create the risk for a Streisand Effect – drawing more unwanted attention to the false review than if you had never sued. That is rare, but a real risk which should be taken into account.
Be Sure “The Juice is Worth the Squeeze”
If you have a sea of positive reviews and only one negative review, it might not be worth the expense of litigating, especially if the negative review is not terribly inflammatory.
However, be certain you can live with the negative review because the longer you wait the more your available recourses, and the chance of success, will diminish.
The more your practice depends on steadily generating new clients, the more you should zealously safeguard your online reviews.
Are Any Alternative Remedies Available?
If you know exactly who published the review or have a really good idea of who did it, consider taking a customer relations approach. You can contact them privately and seek to resolve the issue.
Dissatisfied clients, especially the ones who complain about non-responsiveness (a common refrain in lawyer reviews), just want to feel heard and be given an opportunity to express themselves. You may be surprised by the results you can achieve when genuine compassion and empathy is displayed, even if you feel their gripe with your services is not warranted.
You can also consider reporting the review for any ToS violations, as discussed above. Success in reporting violations can be inconsistent and persistence is often required when initially rejected.
Either approach here envisions someone else making a discretionary decision to remediate your problem. Keep that in mind in how you approach and frame the request.
Short of full remediation, online reputation management (ORM) can be used to mitigate (not eliminate) the damage the negative or unwanted reviews will prospectively cause. ORM services and strategies utilize a combination of SEO, marketing, and public relations strategies to bolster the online image you wish to convey.
Are Fake Law Firm Reviews Illegal?
Fake positive reviews are unlawful under Section 5 of the FTC Act 15 U.S. Code Section 45. Individuals who post or solicit false and misleading testimonials can be fined up to $10,000.
Fake negative reviews, on the other hand, except in extreme circumstances involving consumer fraud, only give rise to civil causes of action, such as defamation.
Why Should You Work With an Experienced Legal Team to Address Fake Law Firm Reviews?
The law of online defamation is still developing and, therefore, is riddled with complexities and nuance. Retaining a seasoned Internet defamation attorney is recommended to develop a sound strategy to address and remove unwanted reviews.
Experienced Internet defamation attorneys have the skill and knowledge necessary to identify fake reviews, unmask the culprits, and achieve full removal. Such a legal professional can advise when to sue and when not to sue, what is required for filing suit, where to file suit, and how to properly pursue your claims.
An experienced Internet defamation attorney can also help you navigate the ethical minefield of applicable rules and considerations when responding to negative online reviews.
At Minc Law, we have successfully helped other members of our esteemed profession and their law firms navigate the complexities that come with legal actions to identify anonymous defendants and compel the removal of fake law firm reviews.
“Dan Powell and Dorrian Horsey worked together seamlessly to restore my reputation after I was wrongly accused of professional misconduct in several, malicious online postings by a reckless and misguided activist group. They secured a public retraction and apology from the group, and Dan used his Internet expertise to identify and hold accountable the individual who impersonated me in a series of fabricated emails that contributed to this scam. Dorrian’s knowledge of the North Carolina court system proved invaluable in reaching a successful settlement that included financial compensation from my impersonator. I don’t believe there is another law firm in the country that could have achieved these results. I strongly recommend Dan and Dorrian to anyone else facing a similar situation.”
Aug 24, 2021
If you or your legal practice are the targets of fake online reviews, contact us today to schedule your initial no-obligation consultation by calling (216) 373-7706, speaking with a Chat representative, or filling out our online contact form.