For decades, lawyers weren't allowed to advertise their services at all. That all changed in 1977 when one Phoenix law firm ran an ad in a local newspaper that became the basis for the landmark decision in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona.
Most people today have seen numerous ads from lawyers, whether it's online, on billboards, or elsewhere. Some experts believe that lawyer advertising is a billion-dollar-a-year industry.
But advertising your legal services is about so much more than getting your firm's name in front of target clients and capturing their attention.
All lawyers who want to advertise must know what rules and restrictions they need to abide by in all marketing campaigns. Walking the line between following the rules and making sure your messaging stands out in the market can be a challenging one.
Who Regulates Attorney Advertising?
A few major organizations set the rules for advertising and marketing that define the advertising and social media policy for law firms.
The American Bar Association sets national rules about what lawyers can and cannot do, but lawyers may also be limited further depending on their state of operations. For example, the New York attorney advertising rules and far more complex.
Per the ABA Rule 7.2 on Communications Concerning a Lawyer's Services, any platform may be used to market a lawyer, but there are limitations about what can be shared.
For example, lawyers must adhere to the following on any and all platforms:
- The contact information for at least one lawyer at the firm must be present on the ad
- Lawyers cannot claim to be specialists unless they have been formally certified as one
- Attorneys may not give anything of value to someone who recommends their services
Note that there is a lot of variation between states and other bar associations regarding regulations and restrictions on attorney marketing and advertising.
If you own a firm with offices in multiple states or regions, review all the relevant bar association details before publishing any campaigns.
There are several things to note to stay in compliance throughout your practice. By keeping these in mind with each new strategy, tactic, or channel, you'll decrease your chances of running afoul of existing rules.
1. Avoid Misleading or Deceptive Statements
This is one of the most challenging aspects of legal marketing since what is considered deceptive or misleading may seem different from one viewer to another. Always err on the side of caution.
Here are some statements that could be construed as misleading or deceptive in legal marketing:
- We are the best/most successful law firm in X area
- We will get you what you deserve
- The cheapest traffic ticket lawyer
Even if you feel that your law firm is the most successful or the most affordable, it's not worth adding these superlatives. Consider alternative versions such as "Affordable flat-fee services" or "A highly-rated law firm with hundreds of positive outcomes for clients."
2. Testimonials and Endorsements May Be Restricted
Testimonials and endorsements are powerful word of mouth marketing tools for lawyers when used correctly. But there are times when these may be regulated so as not to cause confusion or make false claims.
For example, a personal injury lawyer using actors rather than actual clients in a TV commercial may have to include a disclaimer stating that. Furthermore, since you can't pay anyone or entice them to leave a review in exchange for something per the ABA, make sure that clients are leaving reviews of their own free will.
State bar associations, too, have their own rules about what you can and can't say. This most frequently relates to the use of disclaimers and particular marketing language.
For example, many law firms refer to past case results or winnings amounts to add credibility to their practice.
In South Carolina, New York, South Dakota, and Florida, however, lawyers must also specifically state that past results are no guarantee of future outcomes.
If you're a lawyer in South Dakota, North Dakota, New Jersey, or New York, you must also substantiate any claims made in endorsements or ads with facts.
Fees, takedown requests, or even disciplinary issues may result from failing to comply with bar association marketing requirements.
Some state bars, such as Texas, allow lawyers to submit their ads well before use for pre-approval to limit the possibility of compliance-related issues. The State Bar of Nevada requires lawyers to send in ads in advance.
Beyond rules, be mindful of sharing any review details in other public forums that may make clients uncomfortable or reveal their identity.
3. Be Careful with Claims of Specializations, Expertise, or Certifications
Some state bar associations offer particular designations for lawyers based on their practice area. These may be awarded to an attorney based on time in practice, volume of cases managed, testing, or other certification measures.
Outside of these state-approved programs, avoid claiming to be a specialist or expert in a particular field.
For example, review the state of California’s attorney advertising rules to call oneself a "certified specialist" lawyer.
4. Some States Require an Office Address to Advertise
For a potential client or someone with a question to reach you, you may also be required to list your physical office address on your marketing materials.
In Florida, for example, you must have an office address and refer to it in certain ads. If you're running an ad in a local area, you must have an office address in that region for clients.
Check with your state bar association to determine if they require this in your area.
5. Lawyers Cannot Directly Solicit
Marketing vs. soliciting can be tricky for lawyers, as they might sound like one and the same. In general, lawyers can market to general audiences and raise the online profile of their firm through search engine optimization.
For further information about specifically targeting a certain audience, review ABA Rule 7.3. This concern may come up around the use of direct marketing or email marketing to prospective clients.
A DUI lawyer, for example, may have access to someone's name and address from police reports. However, some states require that you can't send mail to these people until after 30 days have lapsed. Review your state bar association's rules on these matters and keep good records of what you did with your law firm's direct mail marketing campaign and when.
With email marketing, purchasing a list of people and blasting a message to them about your services could violate ethics rules. You can market to people via email if they proactively signed up from a form, ad, or sign-up sheet and can unsubscribe.
6. You May Be Required to Have Certain Detail in Your Ads
Certain state bar rules require that you include details such as your contact information, bar memberships, or a label denoting the communication as a form of advertising.
Similarly, you may need to check these rules to see whether you can include certain other details, such as specific rates or law firm awards.
7. You May Not Be Able to Use a Trade Name
While it's legal in most cases to own a trade name for your business, be careful about what you list on any advertisements for the law firm. Some states, such as New York, do not allow law firms to advertise under trade names.
8. Restrictions on Talking about the Competition
One of the biggest reasons to advertise is to gain a competitive edge over other lawyers in your region but tread carefully when bringing them up at all. Don't malign your competition and review state bar rules about limits on comparisons in lawyer advertising. In subtle ways, however, you can explain how you're different.
Perhaps you can't stand a local personal injury firm's commercials on television. Rather than calling them out directly, you might run an ad online stating that you rely on client testimonials instead of loud, over the top commercials.
You can also speak more generally about things like returning client phone calls, such as mentioning in your ads that you care about your clients and are committed to keeping them up to date. That indirectly highlights potential downsides of your competitors while positioning you as a better choice.
While the FTC says comparative advertising is beneficial, you must still comply with local, state, and federal rules. Be prepared to back up any claims you make about yourself or other firms. If you're going to spend money on advertising, focus on your unique value proposition and avoid muddying the message by trying to compare yourself to others in the first place.
9. Some Jurisdictions Require You to Retain Advertising Records
There are a few reasons to keep copies of your ads, such as reflecting on what worked before and complying with state rules about maintaining good records.
Most lawyers are used to their states requiring them to hold client records for a certain time. But other states go the extra mile and require lawyers to keep copies of ads on file. New York, for example, makes lawyers keep copies of digital ads for one year and physical ads for three years.
Is Marketing and Advertising Worth it For Attorneys?
You might be concerned that advertising isn't even worth it if you have to jump through so many hoops. The truth is that these rules are relatively easy to learn, especially if you create a checklist of dos and don'ts for yourself or your law firm marketing consultant or manager.
Even with these restrictions, there are many benefits to marketing and advertising your law firm.
Lawyers who understand these rules know what they can and can't say and will work with partners who understand them, too.
If you're hiring a law firm SEO expert, for example, they should not only know these rules but remain committed to following them at all times. You should always review marketing materials and ads before they're published, just in case one comes too close to the line.
Plenty of law firms find ways to develop and deliver consistent and unique ads and marketing materials without violating any rules. Morgan and Morgan ads run the gamut for trendy, edgy, serious, and funny.
Likewise, the Dolman Law Group positions itself with new clients by talking about successes they're currently logging for clients.
This doesn't promise results for future clients but shows the law firm is active, successful, and a thriving personal injury firm that puts clients first. The attorneys don't look like your typical lawyers in the picture, either.
Market Effectively and Ethically
There are numerous opportunities to deliver solid marketing and ads with great messages for your law firm. When in doubt, remain cautious about anything that could be misconstrued as making promises or misleading claims. Always follow all state and federal bar association guidelines.
If you're unsure about something and your state bar allows pre-approvals, take advantage of that rather than dealing with a compliance or ethics violation after the fact.
Choose your partners carefully if you outsource any of your law firm marketing. Marketing messages or tactics that work well in other industries may run up against ethical rules for lawyers.
When hiring an outside marketing agency, choose a team like the pros at Rankings.io. Our experts have worked in the legal industry for years and appreciate the value of creating compelling marketing campaigns and content that don't violate any guidelines.