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?
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.
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.