Have you taken a look at your website lately to make sure that the content complies with RPC 7.1 - 7.5? If not, you are in good company. While most law firms have developed websites, many have not focused on potential ethical issues that may be lurking.
Make sure that ALL information is current and comports with the RPCs. Before delivering a recent CLE program entitled The Ethics of Law Practice and Legal Marketing in a Social Media Environment, I carefully examined the websites of 5 different small firms and found ethical violations in each of them. For example, one particular attorney had listed membership in numerous professional organizations when his membership had expired in several of them. Another claimed to be an “expert” in his field which violates the RPCs. If I can so easily spot infractions, so can others looking at your website. How do you think that the ethics committees find out about advertising violations? Hint: It’s not the clients. It’s your competitors (at least the vicious ones)! Some of them may be taking screen shots of your offending webpages as you read this article.
Also, many attorneys don’t consider that a visitor to the website may believe that an attorney-client relationship has been created through inquiries he or she posts on the site. For a through review of this issue, take a look at Formal Opinion 10-457, issued by the American Bar Association to provide formal guidance on lawyers' use of websites. The opinion advises that lawyers are prohibited from including misleading information on websites, must be mindful of the expectations created by the website, and are required to carefully manage inquiries invited through the website. In addition, websites that invite inquiries may create a prospective client-lawyer relationship under Rule 1.18 (protecting the confidentiality of the prospective attorney/client relationship). Lawyers who respond to website-initiated inquiries about legal services should consider the possibility that Rule 1.18 may apply. In addition, any limitations, conditions, or disclaimers of lawyer obligations will be effective only if reasonably understandable, properly placed on the site, and not misleading.
Attorney Ty Hyderally took on the task of restructuring the website of his 14-attorney law firm in 2005. His cousin who volunteered his website design services included the seal of the New Jersey Board of Attorney Certification on every page of the site. After two years, the emblem came to the attention of the Committee on Attorney Advertising. The unfortunate attorney was charged by the district ethics committee with violating RPC 8.4 (c) relating to conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation and Court Rule 1:39-6(b), involving the improper use of the emblem for a certified civil trial attorney. While Hyderally testified before the DRB that he had not noticed the seal although he had looked at the firm’s website, the ethics committee recommended a reprimand finding that even an unintentional use of the seal violates the RPC and rule because of his failure to review and monitor the content of the website. The ethics complaint was dismissed by the DRB based on the finding of a lack of clear and convincing evidence that Hyderally knowingly committed the ethics violations. While the right result was ultimately reached, Mr. Hyderally no doubt went through alot of aggravation and expense to get there.
New Jersey attorneys are prohibited from using a prohibits the use of a judges picture on a law firm’s website as “it is likely to create an unjustified expectation” in violation of RPC 7.1(a)(2). CAA Opinion 31
I would greatly appreciate it if readers of this blog would send me information about cases or opinions in your jurisdictions regarding the ethics of attorney advertising.