There’s a good chance that you never covered websites in your professional responsibility course and that you didn’t have a single question about websites when you took the MPRE. This doesn’t mean that there are no law firm website ethics rules — they’re simply governed by old fashioned attorney advertising rules, and that’s where many attorneys run into trouble. Follow these best practices to make sure your attorney website won’t result in an ethics complaint against you.
Review American Bar Association Formal Opinion 10-457
The ABA’s 2010 opinion on lawyer websites is a must-read for any attorney with an online presence. It was the first time the ABA unequivocally stated that attorney websites are subject to attorney advertising rules, and the opinion provides a broad overview of the applicable rules with citations to state advisory opinions from throughout the country.
Choose Your Domain Name Carefully
If you don’t use your firm’s name for your web address, be sure you understand the ethical rules governing domain names. In addition to standard concerns about false or misleading communications, many states impose additional requirements.
Your state might require specific wording, such as “attorney advertising,” to appear on every page of your site. In addition to any standard disclaimers, make you remind site visitors that
- Past results don’t guarantee future results
- No attorney-client relationship is formed by visiting the site or submitting a contact form
- Your contact form may not be secure or confidential (unless you are using a specially-designed encrypted form — standard web forms are not secure enough for confidential communications)
- Any legal information is for informational purposes only and may not apply to a visitor’s specific circumstances
Keep Content Fresh
Even if a page is accurate when you post it, it may become misleading when it becomes outdated. Regularly review your practice area, about us, home, and contact pages to ensure that it reflects the current law and shows current biographic information about your attorneys. It’s also a good idea to include the date the information was last modified on the page.
Review Everything Before You Post It
Many services offer to update your blog or website automatically. Unless you’ve retained them as your ethics attorney and they’re indemnifying you for potential damages, never allow content to appear under your name until after you’ve reviewed it. Just like with your law firm employees, you are responsible for any ethics violations by your web content provider. To limit the amount of work you’ll need to do, hire a content writer with legal experience, but remember that you are ultimately responsible for what goes up.
Check the Graphics, Too
Many sites are designed with stock photos — either as temporarily fillers until you hire a professional photographer or permanently. A generic scales of justice might be OK, but be wary of photos that could in any way be construed of suggesting something. Is that courthouse photo saying you practice there? Is the stock photo of the person in a suit supposed to be one of your attorneys or are they smiling because they’re a happy client? If you do need a photo of an attorney or your office, you can take one that’s good enough with your smartphone while you decide whether you want professional pictures taken.
Every Site is a Live Site
Whether you’re rebuilding your site or are starting a new one from scratch, if you can view it online so can potential clients, and that makes it subject to the ethics rules. This includes temporary URLs if they can be accessed without a password. If your site or a specific page is still under development, make sure it’s either in draft mode or it has a clear disclaimer that it isn’t finished and shouldn’t be relied upon. If you’re not sure if a site or page is visible to the public, copy the URL, and try to open it in a different browser, computer, or smartphone where you haven’t logged in as an administrator.
Save All Versions of Your Site
Your state may require you to maintain copies of past advertisements for a certain period of time, and this almost surely applies to your website. You may even need to file each version of your website with the state bar if your state requires advertisements to be filed. Even if you aren’t under an obligation to maintain copies of your site, saving every published version of every page may provide the evidence you need to defend an ethics complaint about your website.
Website Ethics Rules by State
If your state isn’t listed, and even if it is, read through the rules for other states to get ideas for best practices and issues you may need to look into. As a reminder, always verify the current information for your state as the information here by be incomplete or out of date.
- Law firm websites are exempt from the filing requirement for advertisements. This includes ads displayed on the law firm’s website. Rule 4-7.20(g). (Caution: Double check current rule.)
- Attorneys wishing to have a page or portion of their website reviewed for ethics compliance can submit it under Rule 4-7.19(d). Entire websites may not be filed. (Caution: Double check current rule.)
- Websites must generally comply with the rules for advertising in Rules 4-7.12 through 4-7.17 and 4-7.21. (Caution: Double check current rule.)
- Unethical content (such as improper use of the word specialist) may not be contained in meta tags, meta descriptions, hidden text used for keyword stuffing (this is a bad SEO practice anyway), or any other hidden computer code even if it is never displayed. Rule 7.1(g).
- You must keep a copy of each version of your website for at least three from the date of (1) the initial publication, (2) a major redesign, (3) a meaningful or extensive content change, or (4) at least every 90 days regardless of whether it has been updated. Rule 7.1(k).
- A virtual law office may be listed as a firm’s “principal law office address.” Formal Opinion 2014-2: Use of a Virtual Law Office by New York Attorneys. (Caution: Double check current rule.)
- A law firm may not pay a fee to an Internet service provider calculated by reference to fees earned by the law firm from the provision of online services. Formal Opinion 1998-2.
- A law firm may not post a form for a new customer to request a trademark or copyright search but may do so for existing clients. Formal Opinion 1998-2.
- A website bio may contain information about an attorney’s work at previous firms as long as it is not false or misleading regarding the attorney’s current status or the work actually performed by the current firm. Ethics Opinion 877.
- A website may contain an attorney’s rating from a professional rating service. Ethics Opinion 877.
- Clients comments and testimonials may be displayed on a website provided that informed, written consent is obtained with respect to a matter still pending. Ethics Opinion 877.
ABA Ethics Opinions
Here are a few additional opinions from the American Bar Association.
Paragraph 5 explicitly allows attorneys to use pay-per-click advertising such as Google AdWords.
Deal-of-the-day or group-coupon marketing programs offer an alternative way to sell goods and services. Lawyers hoping to market legal services using these programs must comply with various Rules of Professional Conduct, including, but not limited to, rules governing fee sharing, advertising, competence, diligence, and the proper handling of legal fees. It is also incumbent upon the lawyer to determine whether conflicts of interest exist. While the Committee believes that coupon deals can be structured to comply with the Model Rules, it has identified numerous difficult issues associated with prepaid deals and is less certain that prepaid deals can be structured to comply with all ethical and professional obligations under the Model Rules.
A lawyer sending or receiving substantive communications with a client via e-mail or other electronic means ordinarily must warn the client about the risk of sending or receiving electronic communications using a computer or other device, or e-mail account, where there is a significant risk that a third party may gain access. In the context of representing an employee, this obligation arises, at the very least, when the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the client is likely to send or receive substantive client-lawyer communications via e-mail or other electronic means, using a business device or system under circumstances where there is a significant risk that the communications will be read by the employer or another third party.
Lawyer Websites, Formal Opinion 10-457, August 5, 2010 (Caution: May Be Outdated)
Websites have become a common means by which lawyers communicate with the public. Lawyers must not include misleading information on websites, must be mindful of the expectations created by the website, and must carefully manage inquiries invited through the website. Websites that invite inquiries may create a prospective client-lawyer relationship under Rule 1.18. Lawyers who respond to website-initiated inquiries about legal services should consider the possibility that Rule 1.18 may apply.