Seeing negative reviews about your firm on social media or a professional site can be stressful and demoralizing. But if you start looking for an opportunity in them, you may find more benefit than their critical contents would have you believe.

Balance and Authenticity

Brian Veeder, Martindale-Hubbell Product Manager–Attorney Experience, has heard from many lawyers who are reluctant to solicit reviews from clients because, they worry, some may not post five-star reviews. Firms that already have great ratings may worry that reviews with negative comments could pull down their average. But Veeder says that most people expect to see negative reviews and actually look for them to get an honest appraisal of a business. 

A handful of negative or just average reviews makes good reviews more believable. Imagine if your firm had 20 reviews from the last nine months and they were all glowing, five-star reviews—it would look suspicious. But a mix of mostly glowing, a few so-so and some negative reviews are realistic, and most people who conduct research online understand that. The takeaway? “Negative reviews can happen,” Veeder says. “It’s not the end of the world.”

Feedback

Use feedback to improve—and let the world know you’re doing it. Negative reviews also give back when they reveal problems within your firm that you either weren’t aware of or just haven’t taken the time to resolve. If multiple reviews mention a rude staffer or a process problem, you may learn something you didn’t know or be forced to face hard facts that you already suspected.

But just because negative reviews can have an upside, that doesn’t mean you should sit on your hands when they come up. In fact, responding as quickly as possible is the best practice—if you can keep your emotions in check and contact the reviewer in a calm, clear-headed manner.

“It’s a good idea to respond to every review—positive and negative,” recommends Veeder. “Nearly 90% of consumers said they’ve read responses to reviews. Also, people who write reviews expect a response: 70% say they expect one, most of those within 24 hours.”

A good response to a negative review is one that acknowledges the criticism, makes the reviewer feel heard, and highlights something positive about the firm, particularly if you will be implementing changes as a result of the feedback. Start with an apology—“We’re sorry you had to wait for us to get back to you”—then continue with an explanation that highlights a positive. For example, you could say, “We are so committed to fighting for our clients that sometimes it takes a while for us to answer queries—but we can do better.” Finish by saying that the firm is committed to excellence in client services and that the staff is working on improving response times. 

“Your response is really for those future potential clients—it’s not about responding to the reviewer,” cautions Veeder. “It’s not about winning the argument. It’s about putting yourself in a positive light for the future clients who are going to read those reviews.” Read more here about best practices when responding to a negative review.

Turning a Negative Review Around—Can You Get a Client to Revise a Review?

Posting a response to a review online is important; without a response, a bad review stands on its own without any counter-narrative from your firm. Depending on the reviewer and the criticism he has, you can try contacting him directly. For someone not telling the real story, you might ask, why did you write that? Sometimes clients simply want to be heard, and a real conversation—in which you listen as much as you talk—is all they need to feel better about their experience. Once you reach that point, you can gently ask if they would consider revising or even deleting their review – and often receive a positive answer.

Note that each state has ethics rules about responding to clients in a public space, which you can read more about in our recent post on the topic. This is a relatively new area for lawyers, and state ethics boards may not have caught up yet to the realities of practicing in the digital age. As is the case in so much of day-to-day law practice, resolution should be the goal with a positive message for both the reviewer and anyone who happens to see your response online. 

As lawyers, you and your colleagues know not to mention case details in a public forum and to never admit responsibility for a legal error. But make sure your staff knows the ground rules as well—especially if you have empowered anyone other than an experienced attorney to respond to negative reviews. Together, you can continue soliciting positive reviews from clients who are happy with their results while turning negative reviews into an effective communication tool to boost your reputation and soften hard feelings.