It is the rare lawyer who is familiar with all the intricacies of legal marketing ethics rules. Most of them, however, seem to know that they must take care when using the word “specialize.” At the same time, most of these attorneys have no idea why. Continue reading this post to discover the answer.

Source of the Specialist Rule

In the 1970s and 1980s, some states and national organizations began to offer a process by which lawyers could become certified specialists in select practice areas. Typically, this involves a CLE requirement, a level of practice experience, peer review and testing.

Rule 7.1, which prohibits “false and misleading” statements, didn’t prevent the misuse of term specialist in the eyes of the regulators. A separate new rule was needed to make sure that certified specialists were not confused with others merely claiming specialization.

What Does the Specialist Rule Say?

That separate rule is Rule 7.4 (d) (1), Communication of Fields of Practice and Specialization. I will focus on the ABA Model Rule, which many states have adopted word- for-word or something very similar. As always, you should check and follow your own state’s rules, which may or may not mirror the ABA recommendations.

The ABA model rule provides:

(d) A lawyer shall not state or imply that a lawyer is certified as a specialist in a particular field of law, unless:

(1) The lawyer has been certified as a specialist by an organization that has been approved by an appropriate state authority or that has been accredited by the American Bar Association; and

(2) The name of the certifying organization is clearly identified in the communication.

What Does the Specialist Rule Mean?

If you are certified as a specialist by an approved state authority or by the ABA, you can and should communicate that specialization. In a more confusing area of the regulations, you also can say that you are a “specialist” as long as (1) you don’t say that you are certified as a specialist if you’re not; and (2) use of the term in isolation is not “false and misleading.”

The rule’s comment says:

A lawyer is generally permitted to state that the lawyer is a “specialist,” practices a “specialty” or “specializes in” particular fields, but such communications are subject to the “false and misleading” standard applied in Rule 7.1.

If you’re a lawyer who has practiced exclusively employment law for 20 years, it’s a pretty safe bet that you can say that you specialist in employment law. If you’re two years out of law school and have only handled one employment law matter, you should not claim employment law as a specialty.

Concentrate and Focus

When my lawyer coaching clients are in doubt, I usually advise them to convey their meaning through use of alternative phrasing such as “I concentrate my practice in …” or “I focus my practice on …”. Most of the time, and in most states, these phrases will keep you out of trouble.

(image: Specialist info-text graphics and arrangement concept from Shutterstock)