Audit Your Website and Professional Profiles for Ethical Issues

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The South Carolina Supreme Court recently reprimanded an attorney for flagrant ethical violations on his website. As Professor Alberto Bernabe points out, there are a number of potential ethical issues when writing website content. But are you committing any of the same offenses as this disciplined attorney?

The Specialist

One of the infractions the South Carolina Supreme Court noted was the use of the word ‘specialist’ on the attorney’s website even though the attorney was not certified as a specialist. This is one of the easiest ethical problems to fall into. It’s also easy to overlook. Most of us don’t see the term “specializes in” on a website and immediately think ‘ethics violation.’ But some ethics committees do.

As an example of how easy it is to slip up, I got an e-mail yesterday from LinkedIn encouraging me to “Add skills and expertise like ‘Trial Advocacy’ to make your profile easier to find.” While I appreciate that LinkedIn somehow considers me an expert in trial advocacy, I declined. But the e-mail did prompt me to open LinkedIn for the first time in ages. I noticed that there is a section called “Specialties.” I believe the purpose of this section is to display a focus of your career, and not to assert some kind of certification in the field. Nonetheless, I made sure that section of the website was empty since it could easily be misconstrued.

Take a look at your LinkedIn profile, law firm website bio, and any other marketing materials. Do you reference specialization improperly? If so, you could have an ethical issue on your hands.

Misleading Statements

When scanning for ethical issues, you should go over your law firm website and professional profiles with a fine toothed comb. You may think it goes without saying that you shouldn’t lie on your law firm website. It doesn’t. Don’t lie on your law firm website.

In the South Carolina case, the attorney blatantly lied about some things, such as when he graduated law school and the extent of his federal court practice. But other areas were less obvious. For instance, the attorney listed numerous practice areas in which he had little or no experience. As a new solo practitioner, won’t all areas be areas in which the attorney has little or no experience? I’m assuming this attorney made a representation about the extent of his experience and that’s how he garnered a reprimand.

There is obviously a line here somewhere. When is an attorney doing an acceptable amount of puffing on a website geared to attract clients, and when does that become a misleading statement? This gray area is where attorneys can get into trouble, and it’s why attorneys should be careful about the information they put on any website or other marketing material.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/scords/5584668089/)

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  • Good point. I just went to Linkedin and added the following under “specialites”:
    (**NOTE: I focus on Social Security Disability but am NOT certified by any entity as a “specialist” in this area of law.)

  • Lawyers tend to forget that it’s them, and the actions of their ninjas on their behalf, who are governed by ethics rules.

    3. statements comparing respondent’s services with other lawyers’ services in ways which could not be factually substantiated.

    4. descriptions and characterizations of the quality of respondent’s services.

    Hmmm…

    Adjectives like expert, specialist, and best used to describe services are very commonly used and very commonly recognized as unethical.

    There also appear to be varying standards by practice area. Consumer-facing practices like PI, criminal defense, bankruptcy, etc, seem to be more scrutinized than practices using these adjectives to describe their tax, business, or securities practice.

    I suppose it’s the old the less sophisticated consumer needs more protection argument?

    Another strange result that I see from these rules is the “I can’t say it, but I can quote someone else who said it” argument.

    Can a lawyer who doesn’t herself make the false, misleading, or deceptive communication quote someone else’s with attribution?

  • Don’t list your new hire as an associate until they’re admitted to the bar.

    I was at a firm that got reprimanded for this, told all of us newbies not to refer to ourselves as associates yet, and make it clear in our e-mail signature that we’re not yet attorneys. Then, the firm went ahead and put up all our profiles on the website and listed us as attorneys.

    Lawyers have to be the dumbest smart people out there.

    • That’s actually an interesting issue. I have friends at firms that have gotten the same reprimand, but also ended up on the website prematurely. I’m working on a post for next week about the ethics of listing “& Associates” if there are no associates in the firm. I know a number of attorneys who have had associates, named the firm accordingly, but now no longer have associates. So do they have to change their name?

      • In Minnesota, at least, the answer is yes. Our ethics board issued an advisory opinion a year ago that “& Associates” is misleading if you’re solo or have only one associate. They didn’t mention “Law Group,” another popular name among solos, but I’d imagine it’s a similar problem.

        I think Justice Sotomayor actually used a similar name for work she did on the side at some point

      • Another quasi-related post might be the ethics of using otherwise violating language in technology. For example, I know NY prohibits using words that would otherwise be a violation in meta information on a website. Obviously, meta keywords aren’t publicly visible on a site.

        Also, how about bidding on violating keywords in Adwords? I’m not talking about using them in ad copy, I’m talking about bidding on them, behind the scenes, in your account.

        Is that misleading? The user doesn’t see the violating keywords, but ads do appear for searches including violating keywords.

        Unfortunately for the bars, I think these have to be analyzed on a case by case basis. Which makes an enforcement nightmare.

        And with all the other bad behavior that you can read about in the sanction section of bar journals, hearing and enforcing these nuances becomes a lower priority.

        Except of course for the unfortunate few of whom an example is made.

  • James Bellefeuille

    @ Gyi,

    I believe that if a Testimonial was quoted using unsubstantiated claims such as “best attorney”, etc.

    You would be unable to use that Testimonial ethically in the marketing of your firm. That is my ethical attorney marketer opinion. Luckily, most of my clients have more than one testimonial due to Testimonial forms and releases.

    Cheers,

    James

    • How about these:

      A. “The expert handling of my case by Larry Lawyer got me the result I deserved.”
      – Connie Consumer

      B.

      “One of the most specialized firms in the country.”

      – American Association for Justice

      C.

      “Among the very best in her field.”

      – ABA Journal

      D.

      “The finest criminal defense lawyer I have met.”

      – Barry Barrister

  • Good piece.
    I also noted the LinkedIn issues. Skills doesn’t bother me(although I haven’t filled it in yet), but specialties does. What I did was to note that under the Pennsylvania rules we cannot claim specialties, and then indicate that “I focus my practice on” and list my areas of concentration.

    • This is a great solution Jim. I am definitely stealing your idea.

  • Patent Lawyer

    There is an exception for patent lawyers.

  • It goes without saying that lawyers who claim specialties they don’t have on their websites are unfairly competing against all other lawyers. Specialists pbut a lot of time, money, and effort into becoming specialists, so new solos who violate the rule are improperly stealing clients from specialists as well as non-specialists. Moreover, the State Bars are not aggresively monitoring the Internet for violations, but this kind of bad behavior could make attorneys more heavily regulated in cyberspace–which will be a real nuisance.

  • James Bellefeuille

    Yet, so many lawyers fail in this regard. Just browse linkedin.com and view their “specialties”.