An Oklahoma lawyer was suspended last month for two years based on misconduct involving an unlawful response to a bad on-line review of the lawyer’s services. The disciplinary case is a lesson in being careful about who you’re dealing with when you hire a consultant, and also about not doubling down when confronted with a potential problem.
Social media consultant goes rogue
According to the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s opinion, after the contentious breakup of his prior firm, the lawyer started his own firm and needed a new website. He hired a tech consultant to advise him on the website and “online reputation management.” The consultant advised the lawyer to search for his own name online to see what results appeared. After finding an article on RipoffReport.com that described the lawyer as “a criminal,” he asked the consultant “how we can get rid of it.” The consultant replied that such negative articles could be “de-indexed.” The lawyer exchanged another email with the consultant, asking for the IP address of the “Ripoff page.” According to the court’s opinion, Ripoff Report publishes online consumer reviews of businesses.
Six days later, the consultant emailed extortionate threats and initiated a flood of emails to the computer servers of Ripoff Report and its Arizona counsel. The inundation impaired the servers of the company and its lawyers so badly that their data became inaccessible. The consultant threatened that if the page criticizing the lawyer was not removed within four hours, “we will begin targeting your advertisers” to get them to “pull their ads.”
Faced with the imminent crash of the servers, Ripoff Report’s lawyers reached out to the lawyer and in a tape-recorded call asked him if he knew who was responsible for the threats regarding the negative content about him. The lawyer denied all knowledge, even when Ripoff Report’s lawyers suggested exactly what happened — that he had hired someone innocently to help him, not knowing that their way of “helping” would be unlawful. As the court wrote, instead of taking the opportunity to confirm the truth, the lawyer “doubled down.”
The lawyer paid the consultant even after the consultant described his methods and touted the success of the extortion, the court said.
Months later — spoiler alert — the lawyer learned who had placed the derogatory review on Ripoff Report: the consultant himself. The lawyer went to the FBI and reported the consultant, but portrayed himself as a victim, and failed to provide the FBI with two incriminating emails. The court said that the lawyer “accepted and helped conceal the fraud when he believed it was carried out to his benefit and then reported it only after learning the scheme was against him as well.”
Following the FBI investigation, the lawyer eventually pled guilty to three federal criminal misdemeanor charges, paying more than $425,000 in fines and restitution but avoiding jail time.
Protection of interests “to the detriment of others”
Model Rule 8.4(b) as adopted in the Sooner State makes it professional misconduct to commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer. Model Rule 8.4(c) bars engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation. The panel hearing the disciplinary complaint against the lawyer for these violations recommended a one-year suspension, but the supreme court imposed a two-year-and-a-day suspension with no automatic reinstatement, finding that the lawyer paid the consultant after “fully appreciating the criminal nature of his conduct” and that his misrepresentations were made to protect his own interests “to the detriment of others.”
Responding to unfavorable on-line reviews continues to be a source of grief to unwary lawyers. Here, an innocent situation — trying to manage his on-line image — spun out of control for a lawyer who was taken in by a consultant who essentially conned him. But like Mom always said, things only get worse when you don’t face them, and here, the lawyer made things worse when he doubled-down and lied when initially confronted with the havoc the consultant had wrecked. Good lessons for us all.