As legal marketing specialists, part of our job is to provide insight to our clients within the legal industry, including attorneys, lawyers and law firms. The objective of our insight is to position their practices for success. We apply our marketing background, specialized training and our dedication to continued learning to each of the recommendations we make to our clients.
At ZoZo Group we proactively inform our clients of expected changes and evolutions within their industry as they relate to marketing through a communication we call "Heads Up." Our clients receive a "HeadsUp" on the changes expected to impact the way they market their firm. This knowledge allows our attorney and law firm clients to strategize and plan their marketing activities accordingly.
Tips to avoiding the ethical traps of lawyer websites
Websites for both solo practitioners and firms have become must-haves—as both a 24-hour marketing tool and a remarkably effective way to provide information about legal services and an explanation of the law.
According to Formal Opinion 10-457, posted materials are required to be updated regularly and managers should know, at all times, what their websites look like.
According to a recent ABA continuing legal education program, “Lawyer Websites: Ethical Traps and How to Avoid Them,” the information a lawyer places on his or her website must meet the guidance in the Model Rules; it must be truthful; and, not fraudulent or misleading. Posted materials are required to be updated regularly and managers should know, at all times, what their websites look like.
Program panelists—Robert Creamer of Attorneys' Liability Assurance Society, George Kuhlman of the ABA and Susan Martyn of the University of Toledo College of Law—shared other advice based on the recently issued Formal Opinion 10-457.
Providing information about law
A website can assist the public in understanding the law and in identifying when and how to obtain legal services. A lawyer may offer general information about a law as it’s applicable to that lawyer's practice; the lawyer may also provide links to additional sites, blogs or forums.
If a lawyer provides legal information, it must be accurate and not be construed as misleading by any reader, especially one not acquainted with the vocabulary of lawyers. It is recommended that lawyers include qualifying statements or disclaimers that “may preclude a finding that a statement is likely to create unjustified expectations.” In addition, it should be made clear that the information is general and should not be considered legal advice. Lawyers should explain that legal advice cannot be given without a full understanding of an individual’s situation and an examination of personal documents.
Lawyers may consult Model Rules 7.1, 8.4(c) and 4.1(a) for further background.
Handling website inquiries
A website visitor’s inquiry may raise an issue about the protection of the confidentiality of prospective client communications [Model Rule 1.18].
The question to be asked is whether or not the inquirer should be considered a “prospective client,” e.g., “a person who discusses with a lawyer the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship.”
The way lawyers invite, encourage, limit or discourage the flow of information to and from their site plays a role in determining whether a client-lawyer relationship is formed. For example:
(1) Lawyers can facilitate a direct and immediate communication with a visitor by encouraging the visitor to submit a personal inquiry about possible representation on a conveniently provided form within the website; or,
(2) Lawyers can curtail a reader response by describing the firm's work and providing only general contact information such as firm address, telephone number and general email address.
In between these two examples are many other possible configurations that might suggest that a lawyer has agreed to discuss a client-lawyer relationship.
Not all people who communicate information to a lawyer are entitled to protection under Rule 1.18. Provisions of the rule may apply if a lawyer’s website invites a website visitor to submit information that may begin the discussion of whether to establish a lawyer-client relationship. If there is no such invitation and the visitor nonetheless submits information, the nature of the lawyer’s response will determine whether the rule applies.