As leaders in digital marketing for law firms, we stay informed about the critical issue of compliance with the bar associations established in every state. Whether your firm opts to do its own online marketing or hire a professional digital marketing company, it’s crucial to understand and follow the guidelines set forth by your state bar because violations can result in Bar sanctions and even result in disbarment. For your continued success, here is a generalized list of Do’s and Don’ts every lawyer and law firm should know and follow for bar compliance in digital marketing:
1. Do Not Use These Seven Forbidden Words
- Specialist/Specialize – unless you are certified as a specialist by your state bar or an organization approved by your state bar or the American Bar Association, you cannot use the word “specialize” or “specialist” to describe you or your services.
- Guarantee/Promise – not even the best attorneys can guarantee or promise results. Using this language sets unjustified expectations and violates a code of conduct, so avoid these words unless they refer specifically to something you can control 100% of the time. For example, if your client is not satisfied with your services, you will return their fee.
- Get/Obtain – although these words appear to be harmless, they can get a lawyer into serious trouble, especially when combined with “results.” If your internet marketing includes wording like, “We will get results for you,” it’s another example of setting unjustified expectations. Instead, use phrases such as, “We will work hard on your behalf throughout the entire process.”
- Results – when the word “Results” is used in slogans like “Experience, Dedication, Results,” this word is generally okay because it does not imply a specific outcome. However, avoid phrases like, “We work to obtain money for your injuries,” or “Our firm guarantees the results you deserve.” Do not talk about the results you will achieve for your clients. So long as it is the truth, you can write about past results or successes you have had with previous clients, e.g. “We’ve successfully represented thousands of clients,” or “We helped our client John achieve a six-figure settlement.”
- Most/Best/Top – unless you want to hear from the Bar about a complaint, do NOT use these words in your internet marketing. Why? It’s a comparison of your services to your competitors, which cannot be factually substantiated.
- Deserve – this one is murkier because there is no specific rule that prohibits its use. However, if you use it in the following way, you will most likely run afoul of Bar regulations: “We help clients obtain the money they deserve.” From the Bar’s perspective, using the word, “deserve,” in this way is misleading because it implies a promise to do something, and that everyone deserves to recover something. When referring to a settled case, you could say, “We helped our client Mary, seek to recover the money she deserved.”
- Expert – there is no ethics opinion that explicitly forbids the use of this word to describe your services but in your law firm’s best interest, we recommend avoiding it in your digital marketing. If you refer to yourself as an “expert,” you may be called upon to substantiate your claim. Instead, describe your law firm as “experienced,” “professional,” “knowledgeable,” and “responsive.”
2. Do Avoid False or Misleading Statements on Your Website
In our experience, most attorneys run the risk of violating their state bar’s rules governing internet marketing and advertising when explaining their fees, describing their abilities and areas of expertise, and promoting their past results with clients. As we mentioned in point #1 (above), false or misleading statements include hyperbolic descriptions of your law firm using words like “expert” or “specialist.” Forbidden, self-laudatory statements also include words like “better, “best,” and “cheapest.” To remain in compliance, stick to the truth. Everything published on your website and on social media must be factual. Keep in mind, in some states your years of experience as an attorney, client testimonials, endorsements, and previous case results can be considered false and misleading advertising. When in doubt, it’s best to check with your state Bar association before publishing any content online that could violate their code of ethics.
- Do Assume Responsibility for Your Website Content If You Are the Attorney
In a general sense, internet marketing must include at least one named attorney as the party responsible for the content. This is another area where the requirements set forth by individual state Bar associations vary. In many states, the name of the responsible lawyer or law firm must be prominently displayed somewhere on their website, while in other states, the responsible party’s name must appear on the home page. To eliminate any possibility of violating your state bar’s code of ethics, we suggest that attorneys publish their name on every page of their website.
- Do Publish Your Office Location or Address As Required
In reference to the geographic location of your law firm, it’s likely your jurisdiction has some requirements. For the most restrictive states, lawyers and law firms must publish the city or town of their firm’s principal location on their website’s home page. Adding links to the home page that takes a reader to another page where their geographic location is published will not satisfy this requirement. Other states forbid lawyers and law firms to advertise satellite office locations on their websites unless these locations meet one of the following criteria: they are staffed at least three days a week, the website clearly states the days and times the attorney is present at that location, or the website instructs the reader that meetings at that location are by appointment only.