A Guide to What Your Law Firm Can and Cannot Say on a Website
Disclaimer: We are not attorneys and we are not providing you legal advice. This is a guide that collects and summarizes resources related to attorney advertising that are widely available on the internet. If you have a question about what you can and cannot put on your website, 12khz, LLC strongly encourages you to seek out an attorney that can advise you.
Many attorneys under the age of 40 are unaware that the profession was only allowed to advertise its services following the Bates vs. State Bar of Arizona decision of 1976. Even after attorneys were permitted to advertise their services, ethics rules relating to advertisements for legal services have rigorously regulated what can and cannot be stated in advertisements and websites.
This post will walk you through some of the highlights that you must consider when developing your website. While you might be relying on your web developer to ensure your site is compliant, there is a good chance that he or she isn’t aware of the ethics governing what you can and cannot claim of your website.
The last thing you want to do is go through the process of developing a new website, only to scrap it and redo it after receiving a letter from the Bar.
Below are a few things you should know.
You Must Have an Airtight Disclaimer On Your Site
Attorney-Client Relationships Might Be Established Through the Site…
In order to avoid potentially hairy situations in which a person that emailed you thinks that you have established an attorney-client relationship, you should add a disclaimer to address this on your site. Law firms that want to take extra precautions can even add a checkbox to the contact form that confirms that the visitors acknowledge that they are aware that such a relationship is not established through website contact form submissions.
Your Blog Could Be Considered Legal Advice…
Be sure to include a disclaimer that informs the visitor that any blog content is not considered to be legal advice and to seek out an attorney (preferably you). The last thing you need is for someone to make an ill-informed decision based on something that they misread on your blog, only to drag you into court. A well-written disclaimer prominently placed on your site sidebar could potentially save your firm a massive headache.
In Many Jurisdictions, A Website Is Considered Attorney Advertising
Your law practice website should be marked as “attorney advertising.” Your site should not include anything that you would not include in a TV spot, radio ad, or billboard. Any and all Attorney Ethics rules regarding advertising are applicable to your website.
Despite having these rigorous regulations in place, websites that violate attorney ethics 7.1, 7.2, 7.4, and 7.5 are extremely common. This lack of awareness often leads startup law firms to rely on their advertising and web design agencies to ensure that they stay within the bounds of what they can and cannot state in their communications, and the firms are ill-prepared to advise them.
The result is that a large number of law firm websites are in danger of ethics violations. While the consequences are unlikely to be particularly severe, it could turn out to be a headache at the very least and a black eye at the very most. Most attorneys would rather avoid having to deal with the state attorney ethics boards.
Some States Require Attorneys to Register Websites
It is important to know that some states require attorneys to register their websites with state agencies. Below is an example of two states with such requirements. Check to see if your state has similar requirements before launch.
- Texas states in Rule 7.07(c) that attorneys must return paperwork including a copy of the site home page along with a fee before allowing the site to go live. This is only applicable to websites owned by the firm and not listings such as a Google My Business or Yelp listing.
- Kentucky also requires attorneys to submit websites to the state Attorneys’ Advertising Commission. As enumerated in Rule 3.130(7.05)(1)) the site must be submitted, along with any applicable fees, to the AAC under Rule 3.130(7.05)(2) before publishing the website
Some States Expressly Do Not Require Attorneys to Register Sites
Pennsylvania leads the pack in states that do not require the filing of websites. Its state bar association characterize such requirements as being of “doubtful constitutionality” (see comment 5 to Rule 7.2(b)).
Avoid Any Material Misrepresentations About Your Firm
A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.
The puffery that is common in other industries is almost certain to considered to be materially misleading on the website of a law firm. While a car dealer can state that they “have the lowest prices in the state!” without potentially running afoul of any regulations, an attorney can find herself in hot water for making such a claim. Be sure that any claims that you make are verifiable. The only likely way that you will be able to successfully defend yourself against an ethics violation will be if you can demonstrate the veracity of the claims you make.
This is not to say that all attorneys avoid such claims. It is extremely common to see firms make spurious claims about their ability to close cases in record time, the experience that they have in certain areas of law, and their stature in the markets in which they operate. This doesn’t mean that you should try and test your ethics board.
Statements An Attorney Cannot Make on a Website
Though this is far from a complete list, we’ve included a number of common pitfalls for attorney websites that run afoul of state bar ethics rules.
Your website cannot include statements:
- Guaranteeing or even implying an outcome with claims such as:
- “We’ll get your what you are owed!”
- “We’ll get your claim paid in less than 30 days!”
- “You’ll finally be able to get rid of all your debt!”
- Comparing an attorney’s services to another:
- “We’re the best lawyers in Philadelphia”
- That imply that a client can expect outcomes similar to past outcomes:
- “We recovered $10 million dollars for a personal injury client!” – this is very common verbiage on attorney websites. The comments on 7.1 state you the attorney should include a disclaimer that clearly states something to the effect that past outcomes do not guarantee similar results for future clients.
- Claiming that the lawyer is a certified specialist in an area of law unless he or she has been certified by an organization that has been accredited by the American Bar Association that is clearly identified on the website.
- An attorney can say that he or she “specializes” in an area of law, but it is safer to say that he or she “focuses” on an area of law.
- Making any “unverifiable claims” about the practice. You cannot make statements such as:
- “I work tirelessly on behalf of my clients”
- “I am the most aggressive attorney in the state”
- “We do workers’ comp right”
- In some states, such as New Jersey, attorneys are barred from using drawings, animations, or music in advertisements. The types of animated “explainer videos” that have become popular in recent years are in violation of 7.2.
Statements Your Firm’s Website Should Include
Some states have disclaimer requirements if you include client testimonials on your site. It has been argued that using client testimonials can be an ethically murky area, but recent rulings have largely landed in favor of attorneys including these testimonials. By including a disclaimer that touches upon these various requirements, you can stay on the safe side:
- California — Requires a disclaimer such as “this testimonial or endorsement does not constitute a guarantee, warranty, or prediction regarding the outcome of your legal matter.” Rule 1-400, Standard (2)
- Florida — Requires a disclaimer communicating that clients may not get the same or similar results. Rule 4-7.13(b)(8)(F)
- New York — Requires the disclaimer: “Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.” Rule 7.1(e)(3).
- South Carolina — Requires the advertisement to “clearly and conspicuously state that any result the endorsed lawyer or law firm may achieve on behalf of one client in one matter does not necessarily indicate similar results can be obtained for other clients.” Rule 7.1(d)(4)
- South Dakota — Requires a disclaimer substantively similar to the following: “This testimonial or endorsement does not constitute a guaranty, warranty, or prediction regarding the outcome of your legal matter.” Rule 7.1(c)(12)
Stock Images Can Be Considered Material Misrepresentations of Your Firm
Models & Stock Images
If you are working with web designers that are not familiar with Rule 7.1, be sure to inform them of the rules pertaining to the use of images. If an actor or model in a stock photograph is displayed on your site, it is required that the disclaimer disclose that the images are not of actual clients.
It is also important that the web designer not include any stock images that could be reasonably confused with attorneys. Using a stock image of a man or woman in a suit that could potentially be misconstrued as being one of the attorneys employed by the firm is in violation of these rules. Some web design companies attempt to make their clients’ firms look bigger than they actually are, using stock photography that is not reflective of the firm. This is considered to be a material misrepresentation and could result in an ethics violation.
Want to Ensure You Avoid Running Afoul of Attorney Ethics Rules?
Reach out to us. We have a team dedicated to the design of websites for law firms and you can rest assured that we will not allow anything on your site that could potentially cause you legal troubles.
If all you need is an audit to ensure compliance or you need a completely new website, we can help. Click here to talk to us about your practice’s website.