There are many things to consider in the process of getting your law firm’s Internet marketing campaign off the ground. If you are launching a legal website, you want to make appealing design choices, develop high quality written content, and of course, pick the right domain name. There are many SEO factors that go into choosing the right uniform resource locator (URL) for your firm’s website, and as with any other component of your marketing strategy, naturally you will want to use language that communicates the nature and extent of your professional experience. However, as an attorney you also need to be aware of the ethics implications of the wording you use in your website address.
Specifically, rules of professional responsibility that are in place in most states restrict the use of terms such as “expert,” “specialist,” or any language that could be misleading or suggest a guaranteed outcome in legal advertising materials. These rules have implications for law firm domain names as well, with existing authority suggesting that even in states where advertising such a certification on your website is permissible, it is unclear whether it is feasible to ethically incorporate such a distinction into your firm’s domain name.
General Ethics Rules Governing Law Firm Domain Names
As legal ethics standards related to online attorney advertising have become more developed in recent years, state bar associations have begun to consider whether and to what extent those standards apply to law firm domain names. A handful of jurisdictions have directly addressed this question in some form or another, and most of those opinions have touched on a few key issues.
First is the question of whether a law firm’s domain name is subject to the same legal advertising standards as law firm names in general, which often mandate that the names of firm attorneys must be included. A closely related question is whether a law firms in a given jurisdiction may operate under a trade name. An ethics opinion out of Kentucky, for example, provides that it is not necessary for a law firm’s domain name to include an individual firm or attorney’s name as long as, among other things, the responsible attorney or law firm is identified on the website. The opinion explained that domain names may also reflect an area of concentration or case type, as in the example “divorcelawyer.com.” State bar officials in Arizona have likewise ruled that domain names need not match firm names, but cautioned that firms cannot use domain names suggesting an affiliation with local bar or government authorities, or indicating a nonprofit status (such as using “.org”) if the firm is a for-profit entity. Legal ethics authorities in New Jersey have concluded that while a domain name cannot be substituted for the actual name of the firm or characterized as the entity that is practicing law, it can be used in a legal advertisement to direct potential clients to a law firm.
A related inquiry has to do with whether and to what extent more general legal advertising ethics rules, such as those prohibiting misleading statements, govern law firm domain names. The consensus from most states that have addressed the issue, including Ohio and Kentucky, is that domain names are subject to these rules, and as such cannot communicate any deceptive, fraudulent, exaggerated, or false information. The Kentucky opinion provides that this rule bars the advertising law firm from using its domain name to compare its legal services with others. According to the Ohio opinion, inappropriate language in this context encompasses any wording that is self-laudatory, or that could create unjustified client expectations, such as “wewillwineverycaseforyou.”
Similarly, New York Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 7.5(e) specifically addresses domain names, and provides that a law firm domain name need not include the name of the law firm or associated lawyers as long as the URL does not imply a guaranteed outcome, attempt to practice law, contain any misleading information, or otherwise violate the rules.
Advertising Specialist or Expert Certifications
As discussed in previous posts regarding what to avoid saying on your law firm website and disclaimers you may need to post on your site, and in keeping with the rule against creating unfounded expectations, most states have specific rules governing whether and how a lawyer may describe him or herself as a specialist in a particular field of law in an advertisement. While the specifics vary by jurisdiction, consistent with Rule 7.4(d) of the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility (“Model Rules”) that have been adopted in some form by most states, attorneys generally cannot advertise themselves as being “experts” or “specialists” unless they have been certified as such by the appropriate body in accordance with their state bar rules. And even where such certifications are recognized and may be advertised, this must usually be done within the confines specified by ethics authorities with regard to the wording and images attorneys are permitted to use in this context, as reflected in Model Rule 7.4(d)(2)’s requirement that the certifying organization be “clearly identified in the communication.”
Claims of Specialization or Expertise in Law Firm Domain Names
A more specific question that combines many of the issues described above is whether a law firm may use a term such as “expert” in its domain name. Some of the older opinions addressing this issue indicated that such references were not permissible under state bar rules prohibiting claims of specialization, but many of those rules have since been amended in accordance with Model Rule 7.4(d) to allow such claims to be made pursuant to the specialist certification procedures described above.
More recently, the New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics concluded that a law firm may not use the term “expert” in a domain name, even if the associated website contains language disclaiming any guaranteed outcomes. New York recognizes attorney specialist certification in particular practice areas, though the inquiring attorney(s) in this case did not have any such official specialization. However, the initial reason the Committee offered for rejecting the proposed domain language was that it would violate New York Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 7.5(e)(3)’s prohibition against implying particular outcomes via domain names. The Committee explained that the domain name language at issue here would also run afoul of the reasoning in comment 12 to Rule 7.1, which provides that statements comparing one’s own legal services to those of other lawyers, of which using the term “expert” in this context would be an example, can be misleading to clients.
Notably, the opinion did not address whether the Committee’s conclusion would have been different for an attorney who had in fact obtained a specialist certification. However, it acknowledged that, pursuant to Rule 7.4(c), even certified attorneys could only use language advertising this distinction “if married to a statement qualifying the limits on the ‘specialist’ label.” This mandate, along with Rule 7.4(c)(3)(i)’s requirement that this qualifying language appear in a font two times larger than the text used to state the certification, seems to call into question the feasibility of ethically using a term such as “expert” or “specialist” in a domain name in that jurisdiction given the limited text available (or advisable) in a URL, even if the advertising attorney has been so certified.
The Arizona and New Jersey opinions discussed above also addressed this issue to some extent, stating that law firm domain names cannot imply any special competence unless factually true or provided for by ethics rules. This suggests that attorneys who have been certified as specialists in accordance with state bar rules may be able to reference that certification in their website domain names. However, and while the Arizona rules governing claims of specialization are silent as to any language that must accompany such a claim, New Jersey Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 7.4(d), like the New York rule referenced above, provides that any such communication be accompanied by specific qualifying statements. Given that requirements of this nature are in place in many states, as a practical matter it may be difficult to use a term such as “expert” or “specialization” in a law firm domain name of any reasonable length in a manner that clearly complies with ethics rules.
So what does it all mean? In the end, it seems that under current ethics authority in most states, it’s not especially clear whether you can realistically use terms such as “expert” or “specialist” in your domain name while still complying with disclaimer and other ethics rules, even if you have been certified as such. And while it’s true that in some jurisdictions First Amendment challenges to attorney specialization rules have been successful, these rules are still intact in the majority of states. Moreover, in light of the general prohibition on misleading statements in advertising, there would seem to be a risk that using such terms in a domain name could violate ethics rules in the absence of clear authority. In sum, it is likely best to proceed with caution in this area, and as always, be sure to check the current rules in your state to determine the extent of any available guidance.
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