Under the Rules of Professional Conduct, a law firm’s website is considered a form of advertisement and is regulated by the State Bar. Most attorneys are mindful of this, but as with everything, the devil is in the details. For example, you have just obtained an exceptional and hard-won settlement for your client. Can you use this result on your website and other social media to market your legal skills to potential clients?
You can and you should because potential clients are using the internet to research products and services; law firms are judged and selected by their online presence. However, the Rules provide, “A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.” N.C. Rules of Prof’l Conduct, Rule 7.1 (2003). Further, a communication is considered false or misleading if it “is likely to create an unjustified expectation about results the lawyer can achieve…” N.C. Rules of Prof’l Conduct, Rule 7.1(a)(2) (2003).
The State Bar Ethics Committee has determined that advertising specific settlements and verdicts can create unjustified expectations about the results attorneys can achieve. How then do you avoid creating these “unjustified expectations” about the results you can achieve for potential clients? In the past, the State Bar required that the lawyer list both favorable and unfavorable results on their websites. However, the Bar now permits a lawyer to advertise that he or she has argued and won numerous cases before a specific court or has successfully handled cases in a specific area of law, without noting any unsuccessful cases or losses.
In 2009 FEO 16, the N.C. State Bar specifically addresses favorable case results: The opinion rules a website may include successful verdicts and settlements as long as it is factually accurate and contains an appropriate and “prominently displayed” disclaimer:
…The disclaimer must be sufficiently tailored to address the information presented in the case summary section. The disclaimer must be displayed on the website in such a manner that it is reasonable to expect that anyone who reads the case summary section will also read the disclaimer. Depending on the information contained in the case summary section, an appropriate disclaimer should point out that the cases mentioned on the site are illustrative of the matters handled by the firm; that case results depend upon a variety of factors unique to each case; that not all results are provided; and that prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.
The opinion provides that an appropriate disclaimer would preclude a finding by the Bar that the website is likely to lead to unjustified expectations that the same results can be obtained for a potential client.
The use of websites, including case results, to attract potential clients is a wise and essential use of marketing dollars; just make sure you are not overstepping the line between unjustified expectations and good marketing. Likewise, keep abreast of ethical developments in the rapidly changing arena of online marketing and advertising to avoid potential grievances from the Bar.