Internet Marketing for Attorneys: Ensuring Compliance with the Ethical Rules of your State
Chris Dreyer is not an attorney and the information contained below should not be misconstrued as legal advice or advice regarding professional ethics in your state. For specific questions regarding the ethical rules of your jurisdiction, you should consult with a licensed attorney in your state or contact your state bar association.
In 2015, an extensive online presence coupled with a strategic Internet marketing initiative is a necessity for any legal practice, whether you are a newly minted solo attorney, a mid-size firm, or an established member of the Am Law 100.1 Equally necessary is the understanding that your website and online marketing communications are likely to be considered to be advertisements by your state bar association and, therefore, must comply with all of the ethical rules and guidelines set out by your jurisdiction.
At Attorney Rankings, our team understands the importance of strict compliance with the rules of professional ethics regarding advertising and you can trust that our marketing strategies will not violate ethical rules. To ensure compliance, we work closely with our clients as well as employ individuals who have earned their Juris Doctorates to develop online legal content. This further ensures that your content will be accurate in line with the laws relevant to your practice area and jurisdiction.
The following is some helpful information regarding ethical rules as they relate to online law firm advertising, including examples of states with unique rules with which you may have to comply.
Online law firm advertising
In 1978, the Supreme Court of the United States2 ruled in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona3 that a lawyer and/or law firm has the right to self-promote their business through advertising under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. After state prohibitions on law firm advertising were effectively lifted, lawyers began advertising in newspapers, magazines, and other print media. Soon thereafter, lawyers began buying television airtime and law-related commercials became ubiquitous. In recent years, the Internet has become the primary resource for attorneys to promote their services and experience.
Every law firm should have a quality website that reflects the professionalism of its legal team. A website should contain strategic content regarding legal services, current events, recent legal developments, and more related to your particular area of law. In addition to your website, your online marketing strategy may involve the following social media sites:
Facebook – Facebook is currently the largest online social network with more than 1.3 billion users4 worldwide. As a result, utilizing this platform gives your law firm the ability to reach out to potentially millions of individuals who may your legal services in and around your jurisdiction.
Twitter – Twitter is a highly popular micro-blogging site that was recently ranked number eight on the most popular websites. There are many ways in which a law firm can utilize Twitter in order to promote their services.
LinkedIn – LinkedIn is a network of more than 200 million professionals that enables you to share information regarding your firm’s services on your profile.
Google Plus – As the second-largest online social network, Google Plus allows you to connect with and promote your business to many of its 300 million users.5
No matter which online advertising strategies you choose to employ, it is important that all content that you post on the Internet (or that is posted on your behalf) complies with the advertising rules of your state.
Model Rules regarding advertising
The American Bar Association (ABA) has established Model Rules of Professional Conduct6 that govern numerous aspects of an attorney’s practice to ensure ethics and professionalism are upheld. An entire section of the Model Rules addresses numerous issues related to advertising, which also applies to online advertising. In addition, every state has its own set of ethical rules regarding law firm marketing. Though state rules may differ, there are certain guidelines of which you and your marketing team should generally be aware. Such general guidelines include:
Not using terms such as “specialist” or “expert” in a certain area of law unless you are certified as such by your state bar association. Without board certification, you can say that you are available for a certain type of case, but not that you have a special kind of experience or competence in that practice area.
Not making any statements that may be false or misleading on your website. Such statements may include claiming you are the “best” or “cheapest” attorney in your area. This type of statement cannot be factually substantiated and thus may be considered to be false or misleading. Client endorsements may also contain statements that may be construed as false or misleading and, therefore, must be carefully reviewed before displaying them on your website.
Having at least one attorney in your firm who is responsible for the content of your online advertisements. Some states require that the responsible attorney’s name be displayed on the homepage of the website, while others simply require that it be somewhere on the site. It is never a bad idea to display the name on every page of your site to avoid a possible violation in your state.
Most states require that a law firm include a disclaimer informing website visitors that the content posted on the website is simply legal information and not intended to be taken as legal advice.
An additional disclaimer is often required if your jurisdiction allows you to post past case results and you choose to do so. Since you are prohibited from giving a possible client an unjustified expectation regarding the outcome of their case, a disclaimer should inform visitors that the posted case results are not typical or guaranteed.
Many states require that an attorney post a physical address for their office or firm on their website. Where this address must be posted varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. There are also commonly additional requirements if you choose to post the address of satellite offices on your website. These requirements including clarification that you only take scheduled appointments at that office or specifying when you will be available at that particular location.
These are only some of the important ethical guidelines that may apply to online advertising for your law firm. It is always important to understand the advertising rules specific to your particular jurisdiction and discuss them with your marketing team.
While the ABA model rules regarding attorney advertising can provide guidance, many jurisdictions have specific rules and regulations that may affect your online marketing efforts. Some of the states that have notably unique rules are discussed below.
The Texas rules7 require that an attorney be competent in an advertised field of law and also be certified by the Texas State Board of Legal Specialization or order to hold himself or herself out as a specialist. In addition, attorneys that include previous awards or settlements in their advertisements must include information about the nature of the case, the damages sustained by the client, as well as the attorney’s fees and litigation expenses withheld, if the gross amount of recovery is stated. Texas also requires all attorney websites to be submitted to the Advertising Review Committee for review.
Indiana has extremely specific requirements when it comes to lawyer advertising. For example, any advertisement subject to the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct8 must include the address of at least one lawyer or law firm responsible for its content. In addition, the lawyer or law firm that is responsible for the advertisement must keep a copy or recording of it for six years after it has been disseminated. Advertisements may also run afoul of the rules in a number other ways as well, including if it appeals primarily to a non-lawyer’s fear, greed, or desire for revenge, if it contains statistical data or other information based on past performance or an express or implied prediction of future success, or contains any reference to results obtained that may reasonably create an expectation of similar results in future matters.
Indiana is known as a restrictive state when it comes to lawyer advertising, and as of 2014 many lawyers in the state seemed perplexed as to how to ensure that their ads were in compliance with the relevant rules. In a May 2014 story published by the Indianapolis Business Journal,9 one of the state’s heaviest advertising attorneys, Ken Nunn, was quoted as saying “It’s enforcement by ambush … I’m terrified I’m going to accidentally mess up. This shouldn’t be on my worry plate.” Fortunately, even though Indiana’s rules are somewhat restrictive, it is still possible to create an effective and targeted Internet marketing campaign that can generate significant business for your law firm.
The ethical rules set out by the Florida Bar in relation to advertising are widely considered to be the most restrictive set of rules of any state. Furthermore, on May 1, 2013, the Florida Supreme Court issued several changes10 to the rules in In re: Amendments to the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar – Subchapter 4-7, Lawyer Advertising Rules, 38 Fla. L. Weekly S47 (Fla. Jan. 31, 2013). Many of these changes increased restrictions on advertising, since the rules will now consider all internal pages of an attorney’s website to qualify as general advertisements, thus the rules will apply to all website content.
Additionally, all advertising communications (besides the primary website) must be filed for review by the Florida Bar Association at least 20 days prior to the planned launch date of the advertisement. These filing requirements now apply to social media communications, video sharing sites, and other forms of online law firm marketing. The Bar, however, will not review an entire website prior to its launch. The new rules in Florida also prohibit using any “manipulative techniques” in advertisements—including online communications—that appeal to a person’s emotions rather than aiming for an objective evaluation of the attorney’s qualifications.
The above are only three examples of states that may have more restrictive ethical rules when it comes to lawyer advertising. Each state is different and you should make sure that your online marketing strategist is aware of the importance of complying with the advertising ethics in your particular jurisdiction.
Attorney Rankings can help you create an effective and compliant Internet presence
Law firm advertising has come a long way from the days when all advertisements were considered to be unethical or even from the era of mainly print advertisements. Online marketing strategies, from websites to videos to social networking sites, have opened up many new questions and issues for bar associations across the United States to consider when implementing, revising, or enforcing ethical rules. However, the need to comply with advertising ethics should never cause you to shy away from using the Internet and its many opportunities to promote your services and maximize your legal business.
A comprehensive Internet advertising campaign is imperative for today’s attorneys and legal marketing. Potential clients are increasingly turning to Google and other search engines to find an attorney who can help them, so having your firm as close to the top of the search results is therefore highly important. Additionally, promoting information about your firm on social media sites makes your name more recognizable for people who may need your services. It is very possible to have a thorough and successful online advertising strategy that complies with all relevant ethical rules.
At Attorney Rankings, we specialize in helping lawyers and law firms generate new clients by harnessing the power of the Internet to reach individuals and business that are in need of your services. Our team of professionals understands the unique needs and concerns of legal professionals and is committed to staying abreast of the changing rules regarding attorney advertising in our clients’ jurisdictions. We offer a full suite of online marketing services, including search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click campaign management, website design, local SEO, social media marketing, content development, penalty recovery, and branding.