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In the eyes of the state bar association, your law firm website is considered a form of advertising. Not surprisingly, there are rules that govern what a law firm can include on a law website. Although regulations change from state to state, there are some basic guidelines that every law firm should follow, to be in compliance and avoid ethics violations. Whether you decide to manage your own online presence, or hire a professional marketing company, it is essential to understand and adhere to the guidelines. If your law firm disregards these standards, you could be in danger of bar sanctions, and possibly even disbarment. To stay above board, consider these tips on bar compliance for law firm websites.
5 Tips To Achieve Bar Compliance for Law Firm Websites
Until 1976, law firms were not even allowed to advertise their services, but the Bates vs. State Bar of Arizona decision changed these restrictions. However, there are still solid ethics rules in place that regulate attorney advertising, and the ABA Model Rules 7.1 and 7.2 is the ultimate authority here. Your business needs to understand what the basic do’s and don’ts are when it comes to any claims included on a law firm website, and how to comply with the law. Here are five tips to ensure that your law firm stays within the boundaries of ethical attorney advertising.
Publish Your Office Location or Address
To fulfill bar compliance for law firm websites, a law firm must publish its address and contact information on the website. State rules vary on how law firms publish their address and location, and in some states, law firms must publish the main office specifically on their website’s homepage. Some states prohibit publishing additional office locations on a law firm website unless:
- These satellite locations are staffed at least three days per week
- The attorney’s office hours at the location are clearly included
- It is expressly stated that hours are by appointment only
Avoid Misleading Statements
Many attorneys risk violating ethics rules when describing their abilities or areas of expertise. The most frequent mistake is when attorneys use phrases such as “expert” or “specialized” without certification. If a lawyer is certified by the state, it is okay to mention this, but the law firm cannot claim that their entire business is “board certified.” Lawyers may mention that they are available to practice in certain areas of law, but cannot make a claim that they have experience or competence in a certain practice area. In addition to these cautions, avoid comparing your law firm’s skills to that of another law firm, or self-promote by referring to past successes. Some states consider it false or misleading to report years of experience, past case results, endorsements, or client testimonials on law firm websites.
Ditch These Terms
Your law firm website should stay away from inflated phrases that elevate your law firm above the rest, or words that assert unverifiable claims. Avoid words such as: best, unsurpassed, matchless, unequaled and the following:
- Guarantee. Even the best attorneys cannot guarantee successful results. Do not use the words “guarantee” or “promise” unless you refer to something your business can completely control, such as returning payment if a client is not satisfied with your services.
- Specialist. Attorneys cannot claim to be specialists unless they are certified by the American Bar Association or state bar.
- Obtain. When the words “obtain” or “get” are used in conjunction with “results”, this delivers an unrealistic expectation to potential clients.
- Results. If used to promise a certain outcome, law firm websites should avoid this word. If you can truthfully report past results in specific cases, you may do so, if it does not violate your state’s guidelines.
- Best. Carefully avoid words like “best” or “top” on your law firm website, since claims like these cannot be verified.
- Expert. This claim is best replaced with words such as: experienced, professional, or responsive.
To heed bar compliance for law firm websites, it is essential that one attorney must be named as the individual responsible for advertisements and website content. To avoid the possibility of ethics violations, it is recommended to include that attorney’s name on each page of the law firm website.
Law firm websites in many localities must specifically state that the content they are providing qualifies as legal information and not legal advice. A clear, well-written disclaimer should be visible on your website sidebar. One general disclaimer on a website may be adequate in some states, but ideally, a disclaimer should be visible on each page of the site. This is also true of your law blog. A disclaimer can state that the information provided in the blog or on the website is intended to inform, and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. It may be wise to ask potential clients to check a box on a contact form that confirms this understanding.
Other Cautions in Advertising
Client stories and testimonials can be a great addition to your website or blog, but some states require a disclaimer added to client testimonials, so play it safe and consult your state guidelines. A disclaimer connected to a client testimonial might sound like this: “Your legal situation is unique and no attorney can promise you similar results.”
If you have seen law firm websites that showcase company victories, along with the monetary amounts awarded by a jury, chances are they are in violation of ethics rules. Many states require law firm websites to disclose how much of that dollar amount was actually pocketed by the client and how much was divided up between the litigation expenses and attorneys. Check your state guidelines before listing any verdict amounts on your blog or website.
For various reasons, many law firms use stock photos on their websites. Although stock photos are handy and less expensive than hiring a professional photographer, many states forbid using photos of actors, models or people who are not affiliated with the law firm.
Social media is a dynamic marketing channel, but bar compliance is essential here as well. It can be helpful to assign one staff member to tend social media accounts and monitor these for proper marketing practices. When posting on social media, take care to remember ethics rules and state guidelines, and consider including an appropriate disclaimer on every post.
How Law Quill Can Help
Although modern law firms can use advertising to advance their business goals, it is wise to stay on top of the rules that govern this type of advertising. Whether you manage your own website and blog, or hire a professional to do it for you, keep your state guidelines in mind. This way, you can stay safely within bar compliance for your law firm website and everywhere else you can be found online.
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