Is Your Law Firm Unwittingly Violating Your State Bar’s Advertising Rules?
Attorneys spend years of law school followed by decades in the office understanding, interpreting, and upholding the law. But a surprising number of attorneys are not very familiar with the guidelines regarding legal marketing ethics as outlined by their state’s bar association. Not only does violating these rules come with harsh consequences, it can also cost your law office time, money, and clients. On a larger scale, it can establish your practice as being unprofessional or untrustworthy.
This post was written after we realized that many of the law office websites we were redesigning unknowingly contained legal marketing ethics violations, and that content creators within law firms were often repeatedly breaking rules simply because they were not familiar with them.
We hope that in a few short pages, we can help law firms and their content creators avoid and prevent legal marketing ethics issues while improving their overall marketing strategy.
Be aware that each state bar has a different set of legal marketing ethics rules. While this post is an excellent place to begin learning about legal marketing ethics, and while it can absolutely help you avoid common legal marketing ethics pitfalls, it is vital that you also find and review the guidelines from your state. Some states, like New York and Florida, have especially strict or detailed rules, while other states are much more lax. But remember: all of the suggestions below are excellent to follow even if they are not specifically included in your bar association’s guidelines or rule book.
Be aware that ethics guidelines change. Especially with the advent of new technologies and new ways of communicating, such as social media platforms and mobile devices, guidelines are often changed and/or clarified. An annual review of your state’s rules and this document will help you stay up-to-date on new rules.
The Six Most Common Legal Marketing Ethics Mistakes We See At Black Fin
Your state bar’s rules of conduct for legal marketing can be dense and nitpicky – but most all of these documents contain rules regarding the five common legal marketing ethics mistakes we’ve listed below. These mistakes are easy to avoid as long as you know about them, so make certain that anyone creating content for your marketing purposes is aware of each one.
1. False Statements and Unverifiable Claims
It seems easy to avoid lying or making misleading statements on your law firm website, but we see examples of this every day while reviewing legal marketing content. Most false statements we find aren’t made maliciously or even purposefully, but they can get your law office in trouble quickly with the bar, not to mention damage your reputation with the public.
Here are some common false statements we’ve seen in the past that you should absolutely avoid:
- We are the best medical malpractice attorneys in Charlotte!
- We win 99% of our cases
- Charlotte’s most preferred medical malpractice attorneys
- If you win, you don’t have to pay us a dime
- If you have a certain piece of evidence, we guarantee you will win your claim
- We win cases
Impressive statistics and facts about your law firm are a wonderful way to market your brand, but be absolutely certain that your claims can be backed up with solid evidence. For example, if you want to call yourselves the best attorneys in Charlotte, be able to point to a newspaper’s reader poll to back up your statement.
Note that it is always dangerous to make sweeping statements about a person’s claim before you have discussed the details of their case. It is almost never a good idea to state that you can definitely win certain types of cases or that a process will be easier if they work with you.
Finally, be very careful about statements you make about pay structure and fees.
Physicians can easily say that they specialize in a certain field of medicine, but historically the idea of specialization has been much more fraught for attorneys. Since all attorneys learn the same state and federal laws, and since they can practice most types of law as an attorney, it is incorrect and misleading to say that you specialize in one or more practice areas unless you have been officially certified.
Of course, this is problematic in a time when the vast majority of attorneys have experience with certain types of cases and when it’s important to have certain keywords in your online marketing content. While the rules regarding lawyer specialization have gotten more lax over time in most states, some states have strict rules that prevent attorneys from claiming special knowledge or know-how.
Generally, our guidelines regarding specialization are as follows:
- Don’t say “We specialize in [practice area]” unless you have a specific certification that separates you from other attorneys.
- Don’t say, “You should hire someone who specializes in [practice area],” because in most cases, there is no such thing among attorneys.
- It’s okay to say “medical malpractice attorney” or “bankruptcy attorney.”
- It’s okay to say, “We handle medical malpractice and bankruptcy cases.”
- It’s okay to say, “We have over 20 years of experience with medical malpractice cases.”
- It’s okay to say, “Consider hiring an attorney who has a track record of handling and winning medical malpractice cases.”
In most states, you can say you “focus on” or “concentrate in” certain practice areas. Mostly, you want to stay away from the term “specialize” and you want to avoid the idea that you’ve had special training or education related to your practice area if you have not. However, you can note your experience: it is helpful and effective to note how many years you have been taking cases or how many cases you’ve won, as long as you can back those stats up with evidence.
Many state bar associations, such as Texas, have specific legal marketing rules about comparing your services to other legal services in your area. The general rule is that you can’t compare yourself with another attorney or law firm without verifiable facts, but in the majority of cases you can’t confirm with facts that you are ultimately better than the competition.
Do not make statements like:
- “The best criminal defense attorney in Charlotte.”
- “We’ve won more cases than Smith & Smith.”
- “We spend more time and attention on clients than any law firm in Charlotte.”
- “We will take cases that Smith & Smith won’t.”
Even if your state does allow law office comparison, mentioning the competition in your marketing materials is probably not good for your law firm or your brand. Bringing up similar law offices can leave a bad taste in a potential client’s mouth and make you seem defensive and petty. Instead, focus on your own mission, your own accomplishments, and your own benefits.
Some attorneys shy away from posting testimonials on their website for ethical reasons, but all states allow client testimonials, though with a few common restrictions.
First, testimonials should be real and true – even if you don’t share the client’s full name on your website, be sure to keep a record of who wrote the testimonial and when and how it was sent to you.
Secondly, make certain that your solicitation doesn’t contain any false statements or misleading claims. While clients can make comparisons about you or share their personal feelings about how great it is to work with you, they still can’t say untrue things in their endorsement of you.
Thirdly, add a disclaimer to your testimonials page. Some states, including California, Florida, New York, and South Carolina, require specific disclaimers to appear alongside testimonials. However, we recommend that all testimonials pages include a disclaimer that explains that the testimonials:
- Are true and from real clients.
- Do not suggest or guarantee similar case results.
- Were not obtained in exchange for material goods.
It’s important to note that attorneys do not have much control over testimonials posted on review websites like Yelp, Google, and AVVO. While you should fight back against false or highly negative reviews posted about your legal work on these sites, you don’t have to worry about the overall ethical content of these reviews.
Most every attorney is aware of this aspect of legal marketing ethics: you aren’t allowed to chase ambulances to find potential clients.
However, not all attorneys understand the exact rules regarding solicitation, and even fewer understand how solicitation rules apply to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Basically, you cannot “cold call” clients unless they are attorneys or close relatives. This includes face-to-face meetings, telephone calls, and “real time” electronic contact. When it comes to social media, do not send direct messages to individuals who might need an attorney, do not “friend” these individuals, and do not engage in any form of instant messaging or text messaging with these individuals.
6. Social Media
Some state bar associations, like New York, have specific social media ethics guides for lawyers, while others ask attorneys to interpret the rules through the lens of social media. Here are some basic guidelines for using social media, both as a private individual and as an attorney/law office:
- Don’t solicit potential clients using “real time” messaging. As we stated above, you don’t want to be an electronic ambulance chaser. Direct messaging on Facebook or Twitter is not an ethical way to find new clients.
- Don’t talk about specific clients or cases online. Just because social media can seem like a casual place does not mean that you can talk candidly about real people and cases.
- Don’t make false statements or claims. Just as with all of your other marketing content, your social content should only include true and verifiable information. Social posts should go through the same verification process and have the same quality as all of your other marketing efforts.
- Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say publically. In the legal profession, your personal character and ethics matter. Just because you are posting on your individual page instead of your attorney page doesn’t mean that you can say inappropriate things, make misleading statements, or damage the ethical standing of your law firm.
One of the best ways to make certain your social media feed is ethical is simply to have an editorial process in place where posts are approved and scheduled beforehand. Everyone involved in social media posts should understand the basics of attorney marketing ethics as well as the state bar’s guidelines.
The Consequences of Unethical Legal Marketing
The most common consequences of unethical legal marketing practices is a bar association informally asking a lawyer or firm to halt and change their marketing techniques. But changes can be expensive and time consuming, and more serious consequences, while not common, certainly take place, which can include suspensions, sanctions, monetary fines, legal issues, and lawsuits.
It’s important to note that violating online marketing rules can get you in trouble not only with your state bar association, but also with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates online advertising for all businesses.
Finally, it’s important to understand that one of the most serious consequences of unethical legal marketing is that your brand can be damaged, sometimes permanently. Not only are potential clients often turned off by misleading statements (such as, “The best lawyer in town!”) but having a history of marketing violations is also unsavory to clients who are looking for attorneys who are upstanding, truthful, trustworthy, and moral.
The Best Ways To Prevent and Avoid Unethical Legal Marketing Practices
- Understand the rules. The single best way to prevent an ethics violation related to your online marketing is to be extremely familiar with your state’s guidelines as well as federal marketing laws under the FTC. Not only should you know these rules, but anyone and everyone who creates content for your law office should, too.
- Have a content creation system. Far too many attorneys either post content themselves without having anyone else read it, or they outsource their content to others and don’t give it a second look. All content, including social media posts, should go through at least of two-step approval process in order to avoid unethical posts (and for a lot of other reasons). Yes, this takes more time and effort, but it will save you greatly when it comes to the thoughtfulness, effectiveness, and quality of your content.
- Review the rules regularly. As we mentioned above, regulations can change. For example, the rules regarding “specialization” language have become looser, while a whole new set of rules had to be created after the rise of the smartphone and social media. Pick an annual date to review the rulebook and this post.
- Hire an attorney marketing team. Outsourcing your marketing content can ensure that you are following all of the rules and regulations that apply – as long as you confirm with your outsourcers that they understand these rules. Many of our clients who have made one of the six common mistakes above simply used content creators who didn’t specialize in lawyer marketing or who didn’t know the rules.
Questions? Contact the Team at Black Fin
Whether we create your marketing content or whether we work with you on other marketing projects, we would be happy to answer your questions related to attorney marketing ethics. Asking a question now could save you time, money, and trouble in the future.