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Bar Rule Compliance and Internet Marketing

Bar Rules for Attorney Advertising

When it comes to internet marketing, it is vital to ensure that your website complies with the rules and regulations of your state?s Bar Association. At Enversa, we help our attorney clients understand the rules in their state. We monitor the regulations as they change in order to ensure that our clients? websites remain in compliance at all times.

Enversa specializes in internet marketing for attorneys, so we pay very close attention to these rules and develop technologies and ways to help our clients operate within the rules. Effective internet marketing strategies allow lawyers to provide helpful information on their websites to clients without breaking any Bar Association rules and drawing the resulting penalties.

The Bar Rules for Attorney Websites Vary Significantly From State to State

Every state?s Bar Association has different rules for internet advertising. Florida, Texas, and Iowa are generally considered to have the strictest regulations, but other states have begun to monitor the websites of lawyers more closely. Therefore, rules set by the Bar are expected to grow more restrictive over time as the associations try to catch up and devise rules for new technologies being used to market law firms.

The Supreme Court has ruled that law firm and lawyer advertisements fall under commercial speech, which is protected by the First Amendment. Because of this, law firm and lawyer advertising can only be regulated to further compelling state interests, and only in the least possible restrictive manner. Obviously, the state has a compelling interest in making sure that communications about a law firm?s services are not false or misleading to clients.

In addition to state laws, Bar Associations have placed strict rules against false or misleading communications and information. Many of these rules go beyond preventing the false and misleading information that state laws cover. Having an understanding of these rules will help you make decisions about your website that make sure you do not violate any regulations. Following these rules can create an effective, powerful marketing instrument that can be viewed as a model of professionalism in the legal community.

An Internet Website as a Form of Attorney Advertising

As of January 1, 2010, Florida?s Supreme Court approved new bar rules that bring all lawyer and law firm websites under general advertising rules that forbid any mention of past case results, testimonials, or other statements of praise. The Bar suggested that by creating ?information up on request? areas on websites, lawyers can hide content like that behind a disclaimer that allows potential clients to access such information after clicking a box to acknowledge that the disclaimer has been read or understood.

Clients are generally interested in viewing statements about past case results and successes that they can verify. Many of them may be willing to request such information if given the opportunity. Even if your state does not have restrictions that require a disclaimer, it may be a good idea to have one because it can help clients understand the relevance of the information that you are providing to them.

Submission Requirements

In many states, lawyers are required to submit all advertisements, including websites, for approval. In other states, lawyers must save copies of all variations of their internet advertising, regardless of how many times the content is revised and updated.

Restrictions on the Use of Terms Such as "Expert" and "Specialist"

In many states, lawyers are not permitted to use terms like ?expert? and ?specialist? unless every attorney at the firm is actually certified in that particular area of practice.

URL or Domain Names

In some states, law firms and lawyers are required to use only the name of the firm or attorney in the domain name. That is, descriptive words in the domain name, such as [city] injuryattorney.com, are not allowed. In other states, websites are not allowed to use comparative and laudatory words, such as ?best?. Bar rules can also prohibit domain names from being similar to other trade names or official government websites, because this could mislead the public.

It is important to understand the rules that cover domain names because your website?s domain name is extremely important. If you ever have to change your domain name, you are essentially creating a whole new website, which undoes much of the search engine progress your original website has made.

The Arizona Bar Association Opinion on a Law Firm's Domain Name states that even though a firm or attorney?s domain name does not have to be the same as or similar to the name of the law firm, it cannot be false or misleading to the public. In addition, the domain name cannot imply any unique affiliation unless this affiliation can be factually proven. Finally, the domain name cannot use a .org domain name to suggest that the firm is affiliated with a government or nonprofit entity. For example, a firm?s request to use ?arizonalawyer.org? was not permitted.

Contact Forms

Many lawyer and law firm websites have contact forms that allow the viewer to send a message to the law firm or attorney by email. The client may assume that by sending this email, an attorney-client relationship has been created. That is, the potential client may believe that the email communication is confidential. The best way to prevent this is to make sure your form has a disclaimer that states that communication does not create an attorney-client relationship, and that the communications may not be confidential.

Lawyer Profile Websites or Lawyer Referral Programs

States such as Iowa and Texas have regulations that prevent an attorney or law firm from being listed in certain online referral services. Pay Per Lead referral sites request contact information from potential clients and distribute it to law firms and lawyers who pay for it. Programs like this are very expensive and usually provide little to no return on investment.

Websites where you pay for exposure are less troublesome because they allow law firms to be listed in certain sections of the website that cover certain services. By paying an additional fee, lawyers and law firms can be moved to the top of the page, increasing exposure. Other sites, like AVVO, rate the lawyer as a way of determining who moves to the top of the page.

It is important to participate in certain types of referral services, but many do not require a fee or payment to be included in their listings. A good listing provides additional content that gives potential clients an accurate, compelling look at the legal services your firm provides.

A problem with these websites is that many allow for testimonial sections about the lawyer or law firm. Attorneys can also be endorsed by other attorneys and list that endorsement on their profile. On AVVO, endorsements from fellow attorneys are key to climbing the rankings.

South Carolina?s Bar Association issued an opinion that all information on these listings is subject to advertising rules. That means that attorneys and law firms are responsible for the content that is in their listings, and face punishment if any content on the listing breaks rules.

Read the South Carolina bar rule on attorney profile internet websites such as AVVO, Plaxo, and LinkedIn.

State by State Bar Rule Resource Center

Read more about California Bar Rules for Attorney Internet Websites.

Read more about Florida Bar Rules for Attorney Internet Websites.

Read more about Texas Bar Rules for Attorney Internet Websites.

Outside Resource Links on Attorney Websites

Information on Professionalism and Ethics in Attorney Advertising - Recently updated guide by the American Bar Association (ABA) with links to breaking news and legal opinions related to each state's efforts to regulate attorney and law firm advertising and internet website communications.

ABA Law Practice Management eLawyering Task Force| Best Practices - The American Bar Association best Practice Guidelines for providers of Attorney Websites. This article provides practical considerations for any website development, including tips on providing useful content, and using disclaimers to help the viewer understand the limitations of the material presented.

Lawyer Advertising Rules and the First Amendment - Informative article published at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society (CIA).

Legal Advertising in the United States - Wikipedia article on the history of legal advertising, the boom in internet marketing for attorneys, and First Amendment concerns with regulating attorney advertising after Bates v. State Bar of Arizona.

Formal Opinion 10-457 from August 5, 2010: ABA Model on Lawyer Websites

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