Expert, Specialist or Just a Darn Good Lawyer?

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Law firms must comply with very specific laws regarding the way they market their services. Website content, social media posts and advertising all have to meet strict standards for accuracy while assiduously avoiding “false or misleading” statements (ABA Model Rules 7.1, 7.2 and 7.4.) While no ethical attorney would intentionally mislead or flat-out lie to readers, this standard is challenging in a marketing context – especially given its nebulous nature and high level of variability.

In every state, the term “specialist” calls for extreme care. Don’t say – or even imply – that a partner is a specialist in any practice area unless you can provide certification credentials from a recognized and ABA or state-approved organization or certifying authority. If you have that official designation, state the certifying organization along with the claim.

Individual State Bar organizations impose more specific limitations on marketing speech for legal providers. This means that certain words (e.g. expertise, depth of experience, highly qualified) may forbidden in one state but perfectly acceptable just a few miles away. For example:

  • In Virginia, “expert” and “expertise” are disallowed terms
  • Ohio courts ban attorneys from appearing on a televised public service broadcast entitled “Ask the Expert” on the grounds that they cannot claim to be experts
  • Mississippi forbids attorneys from using “expertise,” “depth of experience” or “most expert and experienced” in their marketing content
  • Tennessee goes so far as to ban claims that include “highly qualified,” “excellent,” “top,” “reputable” or even “better,” among other terms

This kind of limitation makes marketers and the legal professionals they serve uncomfortable, with good reason. Besides running afoul of state bar regulations on marketing communications, attorneys who use language that suggests particular expertise or specialization may be held to a higher standard of care than they would have otherwise been, in legal conflicts or disciplinary matters arising from their performance for clients.

To prevent potential problems, law firms and marketers should study the communication guidelines of their own state bar in addition to the ABA rules. Understanding and carefully complying with these standards will be helpful in avoiding negative consequences from inappropriate marketing materials, although no guarantee.

Beyond that certainty, the best approach is to become intimately familiar with the relevant guidelines in your state and adhere to them fully. In addition, your best bet is sticking with statements of fact wherever possible. It’s always acceptable to share information that is verifiably true, such as the number of cases upheld on appeal, number of clients represented in a particular practice area or other objective statements.

If you were selling widgets on Amazon you’d be able to claim pretty much whatever you wanted, as long as it wasn’t demonstrably false. As an attorney, you must meet a much higher standard of proof. That’s challenging, but it’s reasonable and achievable – after all, it’s your specialty!

 

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Sarah Warlick is responsible for making us and all of our clients sound professional and eloquent as the content director at bbr marketing. In this role, Sarah is in charge of ensuring that all copy is well-written, accurate and free of pesky typos before it heads out the door. Additionally, she is a prolific writer and a frequent contributor to bbr marketing’s blog sites. She spends a good deal of time writing copy for our clients and has a unique way of crawling into our clients’ heads to create ghostwritten copy that sounds as if it came directly from their pen.

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