As a marketing agency that specializes in law firm web design, our team understands the serious nature and history of the ethical guidelines imposed on lawyers nationwide. In fact, when the American Bar Association (ABA) was established in 1878, the primary goal of its founding members was to create ethical standards for legal professionals in order to advance the rule of law throughout the United States. Today, almost 150 years after the founding of the ABA, we have bar associations in one form or another in every state, and each one has their own ethical standards that they impose on their members. However, every attorney, regardless of which state you practice in, has an obligation to advertise in a manner consistent with the guidelines provided by your state’s bar association.
While this may seem straightforward, many attorneys can find themselves facing charges of violating their state bar association’s advertising guidelines based on the content of their websites. For example, in Florida, which by some accounts has the most stringent legal advertising standards, a law firm that is comprised of 29 lawyers with multiple offices around the state filed a lawsuit against the Florida Bar stating that the agency’s “Objectionably Verifiable” advertising standard was so stringently enforced that it violates the First Amendment to the Constitution, and this type of litigation is not an uncommon anomaly. The balance that legal practitioners nationwide struggle with is creating content for their website that is informative enough to please and entice potential clients and written in such a way that it passes any ethical evaluations by the bar. As such, our team of law firm web design specialists wanted to provide you with some tips for writing ethically sound content for your website.
3 Ethical Considerations for Law Firm Websites
1. Provide Sources and Legal Context for Statements of Fact
ABA Rule 7.1 states that a lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services, and it defines a “false or misleading communication” as one that contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading. Most state bar associations have rules that are either identical or strikingly similar to this rule, and as such, you want to ensure that any statements of fact on your website are complete and easily verifiable. This is accomplished by ensuring that any legal statements you make on your website include the source of the information and include any information necessary to ensure that the statement is contextually accurate as demonstrated by our example below.
In the example above, links are provided to both of the statutes that support the statement of fact, and there is only a slight variation between the statute and the statement itself. Moreover, the writer ensured that all of the information contained within the statutes referenced were provided to the reader. This practice ensures that all of the information a reader gains from these statements is accurate, supported by verifiable sources, and can’t be misinterpreted as false or misleading as a matter of law or fact. In contrast, take a look at an example of how you shouldn’t post content on your website.
2. Thoroughly Reference your Qualifications
Many states have specific guidelines on how an attorney presents their qualifications. For example, ABA Rule 7.2(c) states that a lawyer cannot state or imply that they are a specialist in a specific field unless:
- The lawyer has been certified as a specialist by an organization that has been approved by an appropriate state or federal authority, the District of Columbia, a U.S. Territory, or that has been accredited by the American Bar Association; and
- The name of the certifying organization is clearly identified in the communication.
This rule and similar rules that are imposed by your state’s bar association demonstrate why you should always list your qualifications thoroughly and accurately. These qualifications include which law school you attended, the jurisdictions where you have been admitted to practice law, and any affiliations you have with legal organizations. Full disclosure of all of your professional accomplishments will not only appeal to prospective clients but also appease the ethical requirements imposed on you by the bar. An example of professional qualifications that are clearly and unambiguously written is referenced below:
The paragraph below would be an example of an attorney’s qualifications that are written in an ambiguous, unclear fashion. Moreover, such a written display of your qualifications could be in violation of your state bar association’s ethical guidelines for advertising.
3. Disclaimers are Often Required by State Bar Associations
Many state bar associations require attorneys to include a disclaimer on their website. For example, the Missouri Bar Association requires attorneys to include the following disclaimer on their members’ websites:
“The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely upon advertisements.”
Regardless of whether your state requires a disclaimer or not, including a disclaimer on each page of your website is generally a good idea. Moreover, the disclaimer should be easily identifiable. States like Missouri require their attorneys to “conspicuously” show the disclaimers on their website, and this is generally considered to be an ethical practice throughout the country. What does it mean to conspicuously show a disclaimer? Take a look at the example below to find out.
The disclaimer needs to be easily identifiable and easy for the user to read as demonstrated by the disclaimer above that is listed on an actual attorney website in Florida. In contrast, the same disclaimer listed below in a different format might not pass the ethical standards of a state bar association.
The big question you have to answer is “Can a reader easily find and read a disclaimer on my website?” If the answer is no or maybe not, consider making the disclaimer a little more obvious.
Need a Hand from the Law Firm Web Design Experts at On the Map?
Give us a call today! Our team of law firm web design specialists has extensive experience in building websites for attorneys across the country, and we are ready to start working on your website today. So, give our office a call now to speak with a web design specialist who will explain how the experts at On the Map can help your law firm.