When it comes to marketing your law firm’s services on the Internet, you always want to put your best foot forward. Your objective is to communicate information about your practice that will convince prospective clients to contact (and ideally hire) you, and in this context it may seem natural to explain why your firm is preferable to others. While at first glance this approach to promoting your business may seem logical, attorneys must proceed with caution here.
It is common knowledge in the legal industry that bar associations across the country have specific rules in place to regulate what attorneys can and cannot say in their legal advertising materials. What may not be as apparent is that these standards can and do regulate information that appears on law firm websites and blogs, in addition to the more traditional marketing tools. Each bar association has its own guidelines, and it is critical to regularly check your state’s current rules of professional responsibility to ensure that you are in compliance. However, the good news is that in most jurisdictions, avoiding a few key pitfalls can help to prevent you from running afoul of your ethical obligations when marketing your legal services online.
1. Misleading Information
A basic tenet of attorney advertising in any context, reflected in the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Model Rule of Professional Conduct (“Model Rules”) 7.1 (note that several states have adopted these rules, or variations thereof, in full or in part in crafting their legal ethics standards), is that you cannot include any misleading information in your advertising materials. This not only means that you cannot post false statements about your practice on your website, but also that you cannot omit facts that would prevent certain information from becoming misleading. Another way to think about this rule is that your marketing materials can be misleading if they would cause a reasonable person to reach conclusions about your services that are factually unsubstantiated. As described further below, this can have implications for whether and how you incorporate client testimonials or case results on your website, and also how you describe your services in relation to other firms.
In sum, it is essential to be truthful in any statement you make about your practice on your firm’s website or blog. Avoid any statements that could be construed as exaggerations, and make sure that any claims regarding your legal services are based in fact.
2. Describing Yourself as an Expert or Specialist Without Certification
Another key legal ethics provision in most states involves the extent to which you can claim to be an “expert” or “specialist” in your field. These statements, addressed in Model Rule 7.4, are certainly permissible in many jurisdictions in which bar associations offer or recognize formal certification in particular practice areas. However, if you have not gone through an official certification process, which typically involves steps such as subject area testing and peer evaluation, you run the risk of being sanctioned by your state bar. Further, even if you have been certified as a specialist, your bar association has likely designated the particular wording and/or images that you are allowed to use in marketing this information.
In short, be careful that you only refer to yourself as a specialist or expert on your website if you have been certified as such in accordance with state bar rules that are in effect on this topic in most states, and that even if you have been, you use only state bar approved language on your site in doing so.
3. Comparing Your Services to Those of Other Lawyers
Another general rule that goes hand in hand with the two standards described above is to stay away from any statement that explicitly or implicitly conveys the notion that your services are superior to those of other firms. As reflected in comment 3 to Model Rule 7.1, the logic here is that any unsubstantiated claim that could lead a reasonable person to believe that your fees or services are better than someone else’s can be deemed misleading. Depending on your state, this outcome can potentially be mitigated through the inclusion of specific disclaimer language on your website. However, to stay on the safe side, in most jurisdictions it is likely best to avoid referring to yourself or your practice as being the “best” or “better” than others. And again, it is a good idea to refrain from calling yourself an “expert” in your field unless, as discussed in relation to Model Rule 7.4 above, your state bar association has formally conferred that designation upon you.
4. Guaranteeing Case Outcomes
Similarly, and in keeping with the prohibition on misleading statements discussed above, you should avoid using language on your website or blog that could be construed as guaranteeing specific case outcomes for clients who are considering hiring you. It can be easy to run into trouble in this area if you include information regarding past case results or client testimonials on your site. As explained in comment 3 to Model Rule 7.1, this kind of information, even if truthful, can be “misleading” if presented in a way that could lead a reasonable person to expect the same results in a similar matter without reference to the particular facts and circumstances of a given case. However, this is another area where a number of states recognize that certain disclaimer language can be a valid means of precluding a finding that your statements in this context are misleading.
Be sure that you are familiar with your state’s rules regarding whether and how you are allowed to describe past case results or client testimonials on your website, as well as any disclaimer language that you may be able to use to protect yourself against possible professional discipline.
Finally, in addition to the standards described above, keep in mind that several states require other specific disclaimers and language to be included in online and other advertising materials. For example, lawyers in states such as Arizona and Colorado who advertise that client fees are contingent upon the recovery of a financial award must disclose that their clients may still be liable for costs. Some states, like Kentucky, require wording such as “This is an Advertisement” to appear on all advertising materials.
Again, and as reflected by the rules referenced in the preceding paragraph, it is critical to stay up to date on the professional responsibility rules in the state(s) you practice in, and to ensure that all of your advertising materials conform to these standards. Though this can seem like a daunting task, a good place to start for attorneys in most jurisdictions is to keep in mind the 4 rules of thumb described above. Make sure that all the legal marketing information you feature on your website or blog is grounded in fact, does not contain exaggerations, and includes all appropriate disclaimers. Ensuring compliance with your professional responsibilities can help you present your firm in a positive light, convey accurate information regarding the scope of your services, and ultimately grow your business.
Disclaimer: The information in this blog post (“post”) is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice from Justia Inc. or the individual author, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this Post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.