Andrew Stebbins: Navigating the complex niche of internet defamation

Andrew Stebbins – a seasoned litigation lawyer and Partner at Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs – has carved out a niche for himself in the legal world, specialising in internet defamation and online harassment.

“Generally, what we do is, if people or businesses are having problems online, we try to come up with solutions for how to help them.” This often involves thinking outside the box, something he has had to do frequently throughout his career.

Litigation is a sport

Self-described as a “lifelong Ohioan”, Andrew grew up in Columbus, went to school in between Columbus and Cleveland, and then went to law school in Cleveland, where he now resides.

“I went to college to become a teacher and I did one student teaching stint but decided that wasn’t for me. So, I took some pre-law classes and decided that law school would be something that would be of interest to me.” Although a legal career was not his goal from the outset, the parallels between litigation and sports quickly appealed to him. “I started clerking for a firm during law school, got some litigation experience and was hooked on that. I played sports my entire life and I think there’s a lot of parallels between sports and litigation in that it’s a competition. There’s a lot of practice and buildup that goes into the ultimate showdown trial.”

Finding his niche

With 14 years of litigation experience, it’s only in the last five that Andrew began focusing on internet defamation specifically. “I was actually approached about five years ago by somebody who was already in the field who asked for help in working in this area. Previously, I had mainly done a lot of insurance litigation. I was looking for a change but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next and that situation presented itself.” With a background in litigation and a penchant for helping clients in vulnerable situations, Andrew found this area of law both challenging and rewarding: “As soon as I got into it, I knew that this was something that was right for me.”

Managing online reputation challenges

In the dynamic world of internet defamation, no two days look the same. Describing his routine, Andrew shares, “I have clients all over the world and so I have to adjust my day based on who needs to talk and when they’re available.” A lot of his workload also involves the general management of his practice group. “We’re taking probably two to three new consults a week from potential clients while managing a lot of litigation; we have a bunch of cases that are in federal court across the country.” Andrew’s caseload often includes individuals grappling with social media issues and businesses facing online reputation challenges, such as negative reviews and social media backlash. “I have quite a few businesses who are dealing with social media mobs where people are ganging up on the business and encouraging other people not to avoid them.” Furthermore, Andrew and his team understand that it is crucial for businesses to maintain a positive public image to handle crises effectively, and assist on this front too. “We do a fair amount of PR work for our clients including how to respond to online situations in a way that won’t make what’s going on worse.” To maximise success, Andrew is strict about maintaining clear communication with his clients to ensure that they are well-informed on the progress of their cases. “One thing that I think is very important is communicating with the client. I make sure that all my clients are up to date on where their matter stands, making sure that they feel involved and know what’s coming next.”

Rewarding work

Reflecting on the impact of his work, Andrew recalls a particularly rewarding case he worked on. “One of my most gratifying cases was actually one that took me to the UK. I was representing a woman who was being impersonated and harassed online through social media. While she suspected she knew who it was, she just really didn’t know how to go about handling it.” Andrew initiated legal action using a John Doe lawsuit, ultimately identifying and holding the responsible party accountable. “A John Doe lawsuit is where we don’t know who the other person is online. We filed one of these on her behalf.” He explains, “Through filing that lawsuit, we were able to do discovery on the social media profiles and figure out the identity of the person responsible for the harassment, who was actually located in the UK.” “Ultimately, we got them to stop. Hearing the relief in her voice was really, really rewarding.”

Overcoming challenges

The realm of internet defamation is constantly evolving, which keeps Andrew on his toes. “There’s constantly new social media platforms coming up. There’s a million different review sites that you have to pay attention to. You’ve got to stay on top of all the current social media trends.” When assisting his clients, Andrew can quickly become the target of online abuse. “You’re dealing with people who have no problem attacking people online and saying whatever they think they need to say,” he notes. “Oftentimes, the brunt of the attacks shifts pretty quickly from my clients to me once I get involved.” Despite this, he is committed to the welfare of his clients. “I would much rather these people be coming after me than coming after them, because that will at least allow my clients to move on and hopefully start repairing some of the damage that’s been done.”

Embracing authenticity

Having found his niche, Andrew emphasises the importance of aspiring legal professionals exploring diverse legal fields and finding their own approach to practice. “Try as many things as possible.” “I think it’s always good for younger attorneys to dip their toes in a bunch of different fields when they start out and see what they like, see what they don’t like. ”He encourages young lawyers to embrace authenticity in their professional endeavours: “I’ve seen a lot of people try to copy the way that their mentor or whoever’s training them does things. It doesn’t always work if you’re not that type of person.” “I think authenticity goes a long way in helping you grow your career. Everyone’s different, find the right way that works for you.”

Adapting to new technologies

As for emerging trends, Andrew anticipates the increasing relevance of artificial intelligence in defamation litigation. “The next biggest wave, like with many industries in the legal field, is going to be AI,” he predicts. This shift necessitates a quicker adaptation by the legal field, historically slow to embrace new technologies. “It’s really going to be important for everybody, no matter what industry or what practice they’re in to start understanding this a lot quicker than we might have in the past.” Andrew highlights how AI is already being considered in legal disputes. “Specifically in my practice area, there’s already litigation going on about who’s responsible for things that are being published by generative AI platforms.”

International practice

To address the global nature of online disputes, Andrew’s international practice is aided by his membership with IR Global. Utilising the network’s resources, he collaborates with local counsel in various jurisdictions. “I have cases all over the United States, and have handled matters in several other countries as well, so I am constantly using the IR Global membership list to find local attorneys to work with.” he says. Conversely, international members will look to Andrew when dealing with social media issues. “All of the largest social media companies are all based here in the States. So if somebody is having an issue in another country, they might need my services in regard to those social media companies.” “I’ve gotten a lot of really good referrals from every sector of IR Global,” he smiles.

Growth and continued advocacy

Reflecting on his career trajectory, Andrew envisions continued growth for his practice. With the persistent prevalence of online misconduct, he anticipates a sustained demand for his services. “People aren’t behaving any better online than they were in the past. Our phone is constantly ringing.” This will likely prompt him to expand his team, reinforcing the firm’s presence in the defamation landscape. “I work with two associates currently, so there are three of us who are really focused on that. I’d like to see that continue to grow, certainly.” Buckingham Doolittle & Burroughs as a firm in general is growing too. “We are a full-service law firm, and we’re constantly looking to add other practice areas to help grow our business. The leadership here has done an excellent job in expanding our footprint across Ohio, in the Midwest, and hopefully beyond.” The online world can be relentless, but Andrew wants to raise awareness that something can be done about it. “My biggest thing is to just get out and tell people that my practice exists, because not a lot of people know that it does, or that it’s a specialty.”

Family, sports and sourdough

Outside of work, Andrew finds solace in family time, outdoor activities, and sports fandom. “I have two kids, and I love hanging out with them. We do a lot of stuff outdoors, I coach their sports teams,” he shares. “I’m a huge sports fan.” he proclaims. “I got into English soccer, the Premier League quite a bit recently.” You can also rely on him for a good sourdough. “I’ve always really enjoyed cooking, and then I started baking during the pandemic. I love making sourdough, and recently got into…I won’t say perfecting…but improving my bagel recipe too,” he laughs.

Contributing Advisors