Every so often, I get the question, can an attorney hold himself or herself out as an “expert” in an area of practice or as having “expertise” in a particular area? Most attorneys know that they can’t hold themselves out as “specialists” or as “specializing” in a practice area unless they are certified as a specialist by the North Carolina State Bar or another organization accredited by the State Bar or the ABA. See Rule 7.4 of the Rules of Professional Conduct. While there is no rule specifically prohibiting use of the word “expert” in advertising, the statement cannot be misleading under Rule 7.1. Several factors determine whether using the term “expert” could be misleading.
State Bar ethics staff counsel has opined that whether the term “expert” is misleading under Rule 7.1 will depend upon whether it can be factually substantiated as a claim by a lawyer. While years of experience are relevant, simply practicing in an area of the law for a number of years is not sufficient to substantiate a claim of expertise. According to State Bar staff counsel, the lawyer must be able to demonstrate that he/she is knowledgeable and proficient in the most difficult of cases in the practice area.
Frankly, I am not entirely certain of exactly how you would make a sufficient showing of your knowledge and proficiency in your field of practice, but here are some suggestions:
- In addition to your many years of practice, you may be a person who has taught CLE courses or written articles for publications on the subject.
- You may also have colleagues who could attest to your proficiency in the field of practice and to the difficulty of cases you’ve handled.
- You may have actually served as an expert witness in a particular related field.
- Perhaps you have taught courses at your local law school.
- You may have served as a mentor to younger lawyers in the field.
- Perhaps you hold a position as an advisory member on a Board or leadership positions in related Bar organizations.
Bottom line: before you use the term “expert” in your legal advertisements, be sure you have an idea of how you could prove your expertise. You may be called upon to do so someday.