With few exceptions, the majority of all advertising is done online. This switch has leveled the playing field for small businesses, like legal startups or law firms. While the added convenience, low cost, and accessibility of digital marketing is nice, this can also cause major ethics issues.

A Short History of Ethics in Legal Marketing

The regulation of lawyer advertising has been a touchy subject for the American Bar Association (ABA) since the start of the 20th century. In 1908, ABA condemned lawyer ads in its Canons of Professional Ethics, stating that only business cards were permitted for marketing purposes.

It wasn’t until 1977 that a Supreme Court case, Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, declared that truthful advertising and marketing items were protected under the United States Constitution. 

Since then, many restrictions on commercial speech have been lifted, such as prohibiting lawyers from advertising themselves as a trial specialist, newspaper ads, or solicitation letters.

In the modern era, it’s hard to find a lawyer that doesn’t have their own website. You can even hire a digital marketing agency for law firms if you want to outsource your advertising strategy. 

Common Problems and Ethical Issues of Legal Marketing

Lawyers are in a highly competitive field, so they’ll often scope out innovative, new, or possibly unscrupulous tactics to attract clients. ABA has strict rules that state what a lawyer should and shouldn’t say, which can land attorneys in trouble if they follow general marketing advice.

In legal advertising, you’ll come across the following problems and ethical issues:

  • Lawyers who claim they’re a specialist or expert in a subject when they aren’t.
  • Lawyers who offer legal advice on an open platform, such as social media. This is fine if the attorney leaves a disclaimer and takes the conversation offline as soon as possible.
  • Lawyers who post misleading information about themselves or their services.
  • Lawyers who claim to offer legal services in an unauthorized jurisdiction. Geo-targeting is an acceptable form of advertising, but they can’t market in the wrong jurisdiction.
  • Lawyers who make unsubstantiated claims, like they’re the “best” attorney in Idaho.
  • Lawyers who make unfounded promises or guarantee a trial victory. Attorneys must qualify their statements by saying a positive trial outcome isn’t guaranteed.

Attorneys must remember that they aren’t privy to the same marketing rules as most other businesses. Read the Lawyer Marketing: An Ethics Guide by the ABA for more information. 

How Lawyers Can Advertise Themselves Ethically

Due to a lawyer’s ethical obligations, they have to place limits on how to market themselves. Some of these limits include adding disclosures to their statements, excluding their law firm win record, prohibiting overly zealous client testimonials, not using specific words, and much more.

Here are some other tips lawyers can use to market themselves ethically:

  • Know ABA’s Ethical Marketing Rules: Read ABA’s ethical marketing rules carefully before starting your digital marketing journey. If you start without knowing the rules, you may unintentionally build a few bad habits that won’t be easy to unlearn or outgrow.
  • Be Honest and Transparent: The best way to avoid ethics violations is by being honest. If you’re not sure if a word or phrase is crossing the line, don’t say or write it.
  • Apply Guidelines to Online Activity: Using Lawyer Marketing: An Ethics Guide as a reference, create a set of branding guidelines that state what is and isn’t allowed for you to say or do. This will make it less likely you’ll break the rules and receive a suspension. 
  • Hire an Experienced Marketing Company: A law-specific marketing company should know how to protect you and your law firm from ethics violations or possible problems.

Remember that everything you do online has a permanent digital footprint, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you want to avoid future ethics issues, stay educated and informed.

Share Article:

Share Article: