There's no single, "one-size-fits-all" set of ethics rules that apply to every law firm's online legal marketing activities. Like attorney marketing in general, the guidelines vary state-by-state.
Running your online operation with these eight (8) principles in mind, however, can help you to avoid potential discipline and protect your reputation. Plus ensure you have access to all the practice-development opportunities the Internet has to offer.
- Apply the same standards online and off. Here's a straightforward one to start. Most of the ethics standards governing your print ads, brochures and other traditional marketing tools also apply online. In the new world of online attorney marketing, the old rules still apply.
- Stay focused. Offer "representation nationwide" on your website and you have 50 state ethics codes to consider. By focusing instead on a geographic niche, on the other hand, you can limit your exposure to multiple sets of ethics rules (and typically improve search engine rankings as well).
Target your message to states where your firm is licensed to practice and is seeking clients. Utilize keywords and key phrases specific to your state or local area in site content, title tags and HTML coding. Select photography and other images with your target audience in mind.
- Tell the whole story. Statements such as "No Recovery — No Fee" may be considered misleading under ethics rules if clients are exempt from legal fees but are liable for court costs or administrative fees. Many states require disclaimers for such contingency arrangements. Does your firm maintain an Awards page on its site? Be sure to include language stating that results may vary and the facts of each case dictate results.
- Keep expectations in check. Verdicts and settlements pages, endorsements, and testimonials that speak to the outcome of a case (e.g., "My lawyer settled my case for more than I could imagine") are regulated by most states as potentially creating unjustified expectations of success. Some state require that results must be from past clients of a firm, not its current clients. Do your homework and include the disclaimers and factual background required in your state.
- Substantiate comparisons. Statements measuring one lawyer's services against another's run afoul of the ethics rules in many states if they can't be factually substantiated. Avoid (or clearly document) comparisons to other lawyers — even implied comparisons, such as billing your firm as "the most experienced in the state."
- Avoid claims of specialization. Positioning your firm as "experts" or "specialists" may violate ethics rules. In most states it is allowable, however, to state that you "limit your practice to" or "concentrate in" a particular area of expertise.
- Follow design guidelines. Several states have design guidelines which specify the type and size of photos that firms may use, or the print size required for disclaimers. Some states, for example, require that only actual attorneys or client of the firm, not models, can be shown in photos. Depictions of simulated events — car crashes, construction accidents — also may be regulated.
- Educate yourself. We'll save the most important for last. Even if you outsource your online marketing activities, you're ultimately responsible for staying informed about the guidelines that apply in states where you do business. Online sources of information include:
- The rules governing lawyer advertising in all 50 states, and
- FindLaw's Law Marketing - Ethics.
Staying educated on these ethics guidelines is one important step in building and maintaining a productive, long-term online presence for your law firm.
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