The Ethical Issues in Online Marketing for Attorneys

Ethical Issues of Digital MarketingIn today’s digital world, nearly all advertising for all companies and organizations, including lawyers, is done online. It’s becoming rarer for the majority of lawyers to turn to TV, radio, or billboards, let alone Yellow Pages, to promote themselves anymore.

Instead, most lawyers choose to advertise themselves by maintaining law firm websites, posting content regularly, and perhaps even being involved in social media. In some instances, law firms may also choose to run paid ads online.

While the advent of the internet has no doubt added convenience and made accessing information instantaneously, so too has it turned the ethics of marketing and advertising on its head.

Today, the ethics surrounding online marketing for attorneys are often muddled by the desire to gain leads and acquire clients. Some of these ethical requirements and missteps have even been so severe that they have been tested in court.

The following seeks to explore the ethical issues in online marketing for attorneys, beginning with a brief history of marketing for attorneys and touching upon common problems in online marketing, proposed limits on online marketing, and general good practices for online marketing for attorneys.

Brief History of Marketing for Attorneys

Before the days of the internet, how exactly did attorneys market themselves? And were there any rules for marketing?

Prior to the 1970s, legal marketing was practically banned throughout the United States. In 1976, two lawyers took the chance to advertise themselves despite the risk of penalty from their state bar. While the advertisement was successful, they were indeed reprimanded, which included a six-month suspension.

Ultimately, the case made itself to the Supreme Court, which concluded in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona that truthful advertisement of services was protected under the United States Constitution.

The Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates to legal advertising. Prior to the 2000s, the primary forms of lawyer advertising included newspaper ads, ads placed in local phone books, radio and television ads, and billboards.

In 2018, most law firms maintain their own websites, and legal advertising has reached a whole new level.

Common Problems and Ethical Issues in Online Marketing

Ethical Issues in MarketingAs lawyers seek to be competitive, new and potentially unscrupulous tactics have been devised to attract potential clients. Some of the most common problems and ethical issues that are seen in online marketing, particularly legal advertising, include:

● Claiming to be a specialist or expert. Most states’ bars have rules that prohibit an attorney from claiming to be a specialist or an expert. These rules are in place to prevent false and misleading claims.

● Blurring the lines of the client-attorney relationship. In a world of instant communication, the lines that distinguish the formation of the client-attorney relationship can be blurred. This is especially true when clients ask online questions and lawyers post open responses, often through social media. It is important that online communications contain a disclaimer, and that communications are taken offline as soon as possible.

● Posting deceptive or misleading information. Unfortunately, advertising can often be deceptive. Even something like writing the word “lawyers” when the firm only has one “lawyer” can be misleading.

● Claiming to offer legal services in an unauthorized jurisdiction. In today’s day and age, geo-targeting is an important part of effective online marketing. But lawyers must be wary of promoting themselves in jurisdictions where they are not authorized to practice.

● Making unsubstantiated claims. Using qualifiers like “best” and “most” can be problematic. A law firm should refrain from saying things such as, “The most reputable law firm in…” etc.

● Making unfounded promises or citing victories without qualifying them. Finally, legal marketing may make unfounded promises or talk about legal victories without qualifying them with a statement explaining that an outcome is not guaranteed and that outcomes vary on a case-by-case basis.

Clearly, the ethical issues are myriad, and surely the list above is not inclusive. Other potential issues include online reviews and blurring the line between personal and professional via social media.

Proposed Limits on Online Marketing for Attorneys

Due to the large number of ethical objections that are raised as a result of online marketing, many states’ bars have attempted to place limits on the ways in which attorneys can market themselves online. Some of these proposed limits include the requirement for content to include certain disclosures, the prohibition of client testimonials, the exclusion of any of the law firm’s past results, limits on the use of the word “specialist,” and more. It is important to familiarize yourself with any standards set forth by your state bar.

Good Practices for Online Marketing for Attorneys

To not advertise is unthinkable for the majority of law firms and could be extremely harmful to a law firm’s success. Fortunately, ethical advertising is very possible when law firms and lawyers adhere to a set of guidelines and general good practices for online marketing. Some tips for ethical marketing include:

● Apply guidelines to all online activity. If you’re not sure whether or not what you’re doing online is considered advertising, it’s smart to assume it is as an added layer of protection.

● Know the rules. Know the rules for your state bar. The more you know, the more confident you will be in your ability to meet guidelines.

● Be honest. The best way to avoid an ethical issue is to make sure that everything you say online or post on your website is honest. This ranges from the number of years you’ve been practicing to the number of cases you’ve won to the type of law you’re most experienced in and more.

● Work with a reputable and knowledgeable marketing company. Working with a knowledgeable marketing company who is familiar with the laws for your state and is aware of ethical issues in online marketing for attorneys can provide peace of mind.

Finally, remember that everything that you do online has a permanent digital footprint. Before you post any online content, familiarize yourself with ethical issues and ensure your content is in compliance. The best way to avoid a problem is to stay educated and informed.

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Casey Meraz

Casey is the founder and president of Ethical SEO Consulting and Juris Digital based in Denver, CO. Casey's specialties are in organic and local SEO. He is a regular contributor to the Moz Blog and the author of How To Perform The Ultimate Local SEO Audit. If you have an SEO question or need advice please feel free to reach out by email: cmeraz@jurisdigital.com. Follow Casey on Twitter @CaseyMeraz.