There are few things certain in law.
Ask a lawyer a question, and you’ll likely get that perennial, unsatisfactory, lawyerly answer: “It depends.”
But no matter what area of law you practice, one thing is guaranteed: if you are a lawyer who does a good job, someone will hate you, eventually, for doing your job. And this is ok.
Maybe you’re defending someone in a civil case; that someone might be an opposing litigant who sees your deft understanding of the rules of civil procedure as you intentionally screwing him. Perhaps you’re able to identify important 4th Amendment issues in an arrest and argue a successful suppression motion — now “someone” hates you for using “loopholes” to “get a guilty client off.” Or you might have been hired to represent a contractor who was never paid for work he did, and when you sue to collect it, that “someone” ends up being the family of the defendant, who are now sure that you’re a scumbag.
No matter what you do as a lawyer, someone is eventually going to hate you. And that’s ok, because it means you’re doing your job right. Sometimes, this has consequences for your reputation. Let’s discuss some ways to deal with the vitriol.
Back before the internet, people used to spread nasty rumors about you among your friends.
Now, though, in the internet age — with Facebook, Avvo, Yelp, and Google — people who feel aggrieved have more outlets than ever to say mean things about you on the internet.
More and more, you’re going to have to deal with it.
Remember Your Duty to Your Client is Paramount, Other People Be Dammed
Each state has its own rules on your duties to your client. As I understand it, most of them are based on the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which state the following:
PREAMBLE: A LAWYER’S RESPONSIBILITIES
 A lawyer, as a member of the legal profession, is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice. As a representative of clients, a lawyer performs various functions. […] As advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client’s position under the rules of the adversary system.
As advocate, your client is Priority A No. 1. Sometimes sticking up for your client means going to jail. And certainly, your client’s interests are more important than your feelings or fears of being labeled a big meanie. Being a lawyer is hard, and you’ll often need a thick hide.
Because people will gun for you. Those folks gunning for you will try to hurt your reputation — to the point that there’s a whole market for online reputation management for lawyers! How you deal with it is important, and frankly, reflects on your professionalism and personality as an attorney.
Now, it’s story time.
I have a neighborhood-based practice in a tight-knit city neighborhood. I love my neighborhood and the people in it. Despite being in a large city, there’s a small-town feel. And “feel” means that sometimes word gets around quickly. Because I live in the neighborhood where I work, my reputation is my livelihood, and I guard it closely.
Sometimes, this creates some problems for me when I get involved in a case where opposing parties live in the same neighborhood.
Last year, I represented a client who had a claim adverse to another person in the neighborhood. While we tried to work things out at first, it simply didn’t work, and the case went into suit. Eventually, things ended in my client’s favor. Success, right? For the client, absolutely. For me, as advocate for my client, absolutely.
But for my reputation — well, little did I know that this would become a big issue.
You see, the defendant in the case had extended friend and family in my neighborhood. Through the grapevine, I learned that folks were talking, and saying mean things about me. Then, I started getting aggressive comments on my personal social media pages [here’s a tip — tighten privacy settings], and fake negative comments and reviews by non-clients on several of my internet pages. Initially, I started to worry that my reputation would suffer if folks believed the nonsense that was being spread throughout the neighborhood and over social media.
Well, they don’t teach you about how to handle that in law school. So I was left with a few options.
Three Potential Options to Deal With People Who Hate You
I was faced with the question: how do I deal with these assaults on my professional reputation? I saw three options. Guess which I chose?
1) Fight Them
Your first option is to fight them.
If you’re a trial lawyer, you may already be imbued with an innate sense to want to fight. Heck, even if you go down, at least you go down swinging, right? SUE THEM. PUNITIVE DAMAGES! DEFAMATION! I’LL SHOW THEM WHO’S THE BIG SMART LAWYER!
This is generally a stupid idea. Recall the wise words of George Bernard Shaw: “I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and the pig likes it.” Not to mention you risk making the opinion of a relatively small circle a matter of public record. Barbara Streisand learned this lesson.
You also risk becoming the laughing stock of the internet. No. Fighting, while occasionally necessary, isn’t always the best idea.
2) Ignore Them
Option two is to just let it blow over, and hope it goes away. Sometimes, people just have to vent, say their piece, and then everything’s all hunky dory. But when angry people write fake reviews impugning your business reputation on a public forum that’s readily accessible by anyone on earth with an internet connection — well, it might not be the best idea to just let that sit forever on the internet.
Which leads you to option three.
3) Address the Issue
So the people who hate you are calling you big mean names — do you gain anything from calling them names back? How does that reflect on your professional reputation?
Marc Randazza, first amendment warrior, says it best: the cure for bad speech is more speech.
So what’s a lawyer to do? Address the matters.
- False reviews on Google, Yelp, or another website? Address them calmly and coolly.
- People in a neighborhood saying mean things about you? Try to talk with them about it over a beer.
- You a writer? Talk about it on a blog — shine the sun’s cleansing light on the rumors, and address them publicly.
It’s catharsis. And it works.
Your Reputation is Your Livelihood
Remember that your reputation is your livelihood. Part of your reputation is how you deal with criticism — whether warranted or fabricated. Handle it with grace, poise, and professionalism, and your demeanor alone may say far more than your words.