North Carolina attorneys can post measured responses to negative online reviews of their services but can’t reveal client confidences, the state bar’s ethics committee advised in a proposed opinion.
The committee approved the opinion for publication, and attorneys can comment on it through March 30.
“The protection of client confidences is one of the most significant responsibilities imposed on a lawyer,” the Jan. 23 opinion said.
A lawyer asked the committee to weigh in after a former client posted a negative online review of the lawyer’s representation, the committee said.
The lawyer said the comments were false and that certain confidential information about the representation would rebut the negative allegations, it said. The only way the lawyer could reveal that information, however, would be if the client consents or an exception applies, the committee determined.
But it found that no exceptions apply, noting that other jurisdictions like Texas, New York, and Pennsylvania have reached the same conclusion.
The only exception that might apply to the facts presented is the “self-defense exception,” set out in the state Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6, it said.
This exception applies to lawyers facing “legal claims and disciplinary charges arising in civil, criminal, disciplinary, or other proceedings,” the committee said.
A negative online review doesn’t fall within these categories so it doesn’t trigger the self-defense exception, it said. However, as long as a proceeding is in “contemplation,” a lawyer can resort to the exception, the opinion said. It’s not necessary to wait for a proceeding to start to rely on it, it said.
The opinion is North Carolina State Bar Ethics Committee Formal Ethics Opinion, No. 2020-1, 1/23/20.