Dubois-Mark
Attorney Mark Dubois ()

The Internet is a cool thing. With a few clicks of the mouse, I can order groceries, pay bills, and find just about anyone I need to contact for my work. Unfortunately, it also provides a ready (too ready, perhaps!) platform for clients and nuts to take shots at us for our real or perceived shortcomings. Answering these things “tit for tat” can be fun, but it can also have consequences. A Chicago lawyer recently was disciplined for violating a client’s confidences when she answered a former client’s scurrilous posting on the Avvo employer-rating website.

The lawyer, Betty Tsamis, had represented a fellow in a wrongful-termination case against his former employer, an airline. When Betty did not get the client what he wanted, he posted a scathing review of her on Avvo. The website removed the posting, apparently without his consent, so he reposted it. Betty then posted a riposte where she apparently said that the reason that he had been fired for assaulting a fellow employee was that he had assaulted a fellow employee. I bet that Betty felt good doing that!

Unfortunately, Betty learned that hitting the send button is often the last thing you should do in such a situation. Rule 1.6 does have a provision that allows a lawyer to reveal client confidences to defend a case against the lawyer. But it is clear, or at least it was clear to the Illinois disciplinary authorities, that the rule was meant to be used in the defense of malpractice cases and not to allow the lawyer to sink to a “your Mama” level of answer-back to clients. Betty got reprimanded.

To be fair to the Illinois folks, this was not Betty’s only problem. She had also kinda screwed up a couple of client transactions resulting in bounced clients’ funds checks. Thus, even though she had no disciplinary history, she rung the reprimand bell with her combined cases.

I have occasionally been flamed by unhappy folks, both for my alleged sins as a lawyer and as disciplinary counsel. It’s not fun. My immediate inclination when I see something like that is to respond in kind. But I have found writing the response and saving it as a draft instead of posting it is a much better strategy. I usually delete it the next day.

I did have an interesting case involving Avvo. Sometimes, a lawyer will accept a disciplinary order that they attend CLE. This is called “CLE as a condition.” A lawyer (represented by someone else) had taken such a deal and found that thereafter Avvo was reporting that conditions had been placed on the lawyer’s practice as a result of a disciplinary order. It made it seem like this was a permanent thing instead of a one-time, three-hour CLE. I was able to get them to change how they described the disciplinary order.

Unfortunately, the Avvo listing for this fellow still indicated that he had been disciplined, and he thought that might have been costing him business. I spoke with Kane Bennett, a lawyer who works on these things. His advice was that it would be better to manage the lawyer’s Internet profile than fight with Avvo.

Apparently, it is possible to move bad things to later Google pages. Kane said something like: “Where is the best place to bury a body? Page 20 of Google.” I was not sure how to do that, but the lawyer later told me that Kane had worked miracles for him and the problem was resolved.

I have also spoken to lawyers who had been fired by clients who then went to court and told the judge that the fired lawyer had forced them into a settlement they didn’t agree to or to waive some right that they wanted to reassert. As with poor Betty, these lawyers wanted to run down to the courthouse and “set the record straight.” While they claimed that they were compelled to do so by their duty of candor to the tribunal, it was pretty clear they were miffed that they had been trash-talked and wanted revenge. I always urge taking a “chill pill” and letting the matter go unless the court calls you down to “splain” what really happened. Most judges know what the real story is.

Bottom line, resist the atavistic urge to respond to clients’ slander “in kind.” Yes, it’s not fair that we don’t have the same bundle of rights clients do. I guess that’s one of the prices we pay for the privilege of standing on the other side of the bar. •