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Is a Change in Legal Advertising On the Way?

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A new ethics opinion, 2017 FEO 3, has now been published on this issue.

For the public, finding a lawyer is just a click away.  The vast majority of lawyers have websites dedicated to promoting their practice.  For those that do not, there are multiple directories listing contact information for lawyers, and unless you don’t want anyone to know where you work or how to reach you, finding that information is easy.  Currently, the State Bar requires that all lawyers include an office address on any communication advertising the lawyer’s services. Rule 7.2(c).  This requirement aimed to prevent the public from being misled about where an attorney practiced.  If a lawyer only practiced in Asheville, for example, but sent advertisements to persons in Boone and Hickory (with the same 828 area code), then by including a physical office address on the ad, the recipient would know the attorney was not located nearby, and could properly consider that information in determining whether to hire that lawyer.

But when you can find out so much more about a lawyer from his or her website than simply where they are located, why wouldn’t including the website address on an advertisement be sufficient?  Well, it appears the address requirement may indeed be changing with the times.  A newly proposed ethics opinion, Proposed 2017 FEO 3, if adopted, would permit legal advertisements which contain only the lawyer’s website URL, so long as the website includes the lawyer’s name and office address.  Specifically, the proposed opinion states:

Utilizing a website address in an advertisement actually provides a consumer with the ability to access more information about the lawyer or law firm than an advertisement that contains only the lawyer’s or the firm’s name and office address.  Therefore, an advertisement that includes a URL for a law firm’s website complies with Rule 7.2(c) so long as the law firm’s website contains the law firm’s official name or trade name, or the name of a responsible lawyer, and the firm’s office address. The firm name, trade name, or the name of the lawyer must appear on the website homepage.  The firm’s office address need not appear on the homepage provided it can be easily found on the website. 

Although the inquiry in Proposed 2017 FEO 3 only asks about use of an address for billboards, the opinion’s Editor’s Note makes clear that it applies to all forms of legal advertising.  Thus, the proposed opinion would specifically govern banner ads, Google sponsored ads, mobile ads on social media platforms, and other abbreviated on-line advertising, where compliance with the address rule was difficult, if not impossible, due to space constraints.  It would also include radio and TV ads, and all forms of print advertising, including targeted direct mail advertising.

This proposed opinion is published for comment on the State Bar’s website, if you want to take a look.  If adopted, this opinion would likely require a change to Rule 7.2(c), since the Rule specifically requires the lawyer’s name and address to be on the communication itself.  In so doing, perhaps the Ethics Committee might also take the opportunity to revisit other advertising Rules (Rules 7.1-7.5) that may be in need of an update.