When it comes to lawyer rating systems, resistance is futile. Even four years after its launch, many lawyers still refuse to claim their free profile on Avvo, a lawyer-rating site because they fear negative feedback from clients. Of course, in contrast to four years ago, Avvo isn’t the only game in town for ratings; just last month, MyLegal.com threw its hat into the lawyer rating ring. And even without lawyer-specific sites, clients still have the option of posting comments about their lawyers on general review sites like Yelp.

Given that various efforts – from boycotts to lawsuits – haven’t shut down ratings sites, lawyers need to focus their efforts on how to deal with them. I’ve already posted about the value that positive client can add to a ratings site, and how to obtain meaningful testimonials. But what’s a lawyer’s recourse when he or she receives negative reviews at a client rating site? That’s what I’ll discuss below.

First, the chances of negative reviews are far less than you might expect, so relax. According to a 2007 survey by BazaarVoice, almost 80 percent of consumers who provide feedback at product sites leave favorable reviews. Others who comment do so with the intent of being constructive, rather than vindictive. Yelp’s statistics confirm these results: only 17 percent of Yelp reviews are one or two stars. The bottom line is that lawyers don’t need to fear ratings sites.

Still, there will be times when a client may post a negative review, which raises the question of how to respond – if at all. Many retailers grapple with this problem as well. Last week, a New York restaurant owner who’d received a poor review from a customer penned a post for the New York Times small business blog, puzzling over how to address his critic, who posted his complaints on several ratings sites. In response, Yelp’s business manager empathized and recommended a three-pronged approach: (1) stay calm and cool off after a negative review is posted to avoid overreacting; (2) make an effort to respond privately to acknowledge the complaints and (3) respond publicly to correct any inaccuracies without being defensive.

But how do these suggestions work for lawyers? Certainly, maintaining a level head makes sense, as does a private contact if you’re certain that a particular client wrote the review (e.g., he or she sends you a copy or uses his/her name)

Unfortunately for lawyers, a public response proves sticky because of confidentiality concerns. Although presumably clients will post a reviews anonymously, it’s possible that they may include enough identifying information that it’s impossible to respond without breaching an attorney-client privilege.Consider, for example, a client who complains that “My lawyer sold me out in a custody case. I was a perfect dad to a 7 and 9 year old and my wife dumped me for a guy in Peru. Open and shut.” If you respond that you couldn’t raise certain issues in the case because your client told you a few hours before trial that he’d had several affairs before his wife left, you’d be violating attorney client privilege.

As a professional, you also have to consider that the world is watching your response. If your response to a client complaint comes across as arrogant and rude, potential clients who see your response may be turned off. Thus, rather than react to defensively to an accusation that “this lawyer will run up the bill and not do any work or return phone calls,” you might respond in a way that educates both the clients – and other site visitors – about your policies:

I don’t know who posted this response, but I wish you had mentioned your concerns about the bill while I was handling your case. As we discussed, this type of matter can easily become costly very quickly, and if you had concerns, we could have discussed different options as I have done with several other clients, with great success in the past. In addition, it is my policy to return phone calls within 24 hours of receiving them. However, as you know, I only accept weekend calls if they are an emergency, and when I am in court, I may need 48 hours to return a call. Perhaps you called on a weekend or when I was in court. In any event, without knowing who posted this comment, I cannot provide a more thorough response.

In addition, you might try to deter a client from posting a review by proactively seeking feedback when the matter closes out. Some lawyers survey all clients about their experience. If you sense that a client was, for whatever reason, particularly dissatisfied, you could speak with them personally or discount their bill. These actions may suffice to placate clients so that they won’t feel the need to spew on line.

For lawyers with common names, it is possible that a client may mistakenly leave a review for you that was intended for someone else. That is one reason why it is important to claim your site and include a photo – so that the client can properly identify you. However, if you are fairly certain that the review is erroneous – perhaps the client references a case in a New York court and you are licensed only in Connecticut – you should post a response suggesting the potential confusion, and contact the site owner to see if the comment can be removed.

Of course, all of this advice presupposes a reasonable commenter. There will always be disgruntled clients who will post over-the-top, venomous rants. Ultimately, these are best left ignored, because these types of commenters are looking to pick a fight. At the same time, prospective clients are not likely to view these screeds as having much credibility.

Ratings sites are not going away. Even if they did, clients would find a million other ways to criticize their lawyers – from DIY websites to Facebook pages or Twitter. Businesses have found ways to deal with feedback and criticism on line. Lawyers too must find their way.