Is It an Ethics Violation for a Law Firm to Exaggerate Its Size?

Zoologists call it “agonistic” behavior — when animals try to look bigger than they are in order to compete. While exaggerated displays are perfectly normal for frill-necked lizards and gray catbirds, does misleading content about a law firm’s size on its website constitute an ethics violation for false advertising?

law firm false advertising

One lawyer or several?

I recently came across the website of the Law Office of Janet McCullar, P.C., an Austin divorce and family law firm. Although only one lawyer is mentioned by name, the site’s copy and images try to tell a different story.

The dissonance starts on the homepage. The first image in the carousel at the top of the page features a group shot of five unidentified women. Beneath the image area is a static copy block with the heading “Austin Divorce Attorneys.” The body copy reads, in part:

“When you meet with one of our attorneys, we will review your situation and make recommendations about strategies we believe will serve you best and will guide your expectations about results.  We will assess your case and let you know whether you need immediate action or a plan for the future.  We will give you guidance on how to best manage your situation, and we will let you know whether we think the time is right to take action, or wait.  We will break down a complex process and let you know whether you have any red flags that need immediate attention.

Janet McCullar is a Board Certified Family Law attorney who is respected nationwide for her skill and experience in representing clients in complex divorce and custody matters for over 20 years.”

Likewise, the “Attorneys” — plural — tab in the homepage navigation bar links to a single attorney bio, McCullar’s.

Is it all right to refer to “one of our attorneys” when there is only one?

I get it. The other women pictured on the site could be administrative staff and/or paraprofessionals. The clearer — and arguably the more ethical — approach would have been to write the copy in the first person, making it clear that “we” refers to McCullar and her team. As it is, the juxtaposition of group photos and copy written in the first person plural might mislead.

Don’t risk it

Even if it passes your state bar’s advertising review, remember that even a whiff of exaggeration can alienate prospective clients and sully your reputation with peers. Tell it like it is. Whether there used to be more attorneys or you expect to be adding more soon, your website copy should accurately reflect your firm’s current composition. And if you’re going to promote your firm using your colleagues’/employees’ images, show them — and prospective clients — the courtesy of identifying them by name and role.

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Wrong With This Blog Post?

Over on the Avvo blog Monday, personal injury lawyer Steven Gursten wrote an unfortunate post about niche marketing for lawyers. I say unfortunate because the good information was far outweighed by the bad and the ugly.

  • A name is not a niche – The main point of Gursten’s post was that changing his firm’s name from Gursten, Koltonow, Gursten, Christensen and Raitt to Michigan Auto Law had a transformational impact on its branding and marketing effectiveness, and I have no reason to doubt that it has. However, that’s a keyword and SEO case study, not niche marketing. Niche practices are distinguished by scarcity, which among other things entails obscure  or arcane knowledge and high levels of complexity. There’s a superabundance of personal injury lawyers that focus on car and truck injury accidents, so the firm’s accomplishment — and it certainly is an accomplishment — has been to stand out in a crowd, not to define a singular, ownable and defensible niche.
  • Trade names for law firms are not allowed in every state – In Texas, for example, paragraph (a) of Rule 7.01 of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits lawyers in private practice from practicing under a trade name, and paragraph (e) states that “A lawyer shall not advertise in the public media or seek professional employment by written communication under a trade or fictitious name.”
  • Be careful when claiming to “specialize” in a practice area – Again, according to Texas bar rules:

“The advertising lawyer or law firm must be competent in the  advertised  field of law and cannot say they are specialized or certified unless they or  their entire firm have been certified by the  Texas Board of Legal  Specialization.” [To complicate matters even more, client ratings and reviews for Texas lawyers cannot use a form of the word “specialize,” and the reviewed lawyer is expected to contact the reviewer to have that language changed or otherwise redacted.]

Other than that, interesting post.

Bar Associations: Most Trusted Brands for Lawyer Searches?

I’m a HUGE fan of Lifehacker, probably the most followed blog on tips and downloads for getting things done. A post this week on “How to Find a Reputable Lawyer” got my attention both for what it said and what it didn’t say.

Consulting with ABA and state/local bar associations and using their lawyer referral services was clearly the main recommendation:

“Both the American Bar Association and various state and local Bar Associations offer search and referral tools to help you find legal representation based on the type of lawyer you’re looking for. Bar Associations aren’t able to help you directly, but they can give you wholesale listings of practicing and certified lawyers who specialize in your subject area. They won’t help you make the subjective decision of whether or not a lawyer has a track record of successful litigation or charges fairly, but they’re a great place to start narrowing down your search if you don’t have anywhere else to start.

“Additionally, look for lawyer’s groups and legal aid groups that specialize in the type of issue you’re facing. Some of this involves web searching, but you can find a lot of this information by calling your state Bar Association. Even if they can’t make specific recommendations, they can direct you to professional groups of lawyers who specialize in different areas, like health care law, employment law, and more….

“Don’t hesitate to check your local bar for more information on the specific lawyers you plan to speak with, and don’t hesitate to ask for and then check on those lawyers’ references before making a decision.”

The only other online resources suggested had a distinct access to justice/legal aid bent– LawHelp.org, ProBono.net and Nolo.

Conspicuously absent from this how-to guide were references to lawyer search stalwarts like Martindale-Hubbell, Avvo, Super Lawyers and Lawyers.com. They’re free, too, and certainly would be likelier than LawHelp.org to show up in a Google search when researching such an article. So it looks like an intentional omission.

Why?

My sense is that the cost of legal representation — real and perceived — has transformed access to justice into a mainstream consumer issue, and bloggers/journalists writing for a mass audience sense that. In that dynamic, the traditional role of bar associations as impartial brokers comes into higher relief — and creates a great marketing opportunity to promote member services and increase participation in bar programs.

Social Media for Lawyers: Child Labor? Really?

In yesterday’s post about the State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting, I mentioned one presenter’s narrow and idiosyncratic understanding and use of social media marketing. To be more specific, he characterized social media marketing as so simple and second-nature to digital natives that solo and small firms should hire only high school or college interns — or even family members as young as 14 — to manage their firm’s social media activities.

That’s not much of a surprise, though. He also volunteered that the only reason he got into social media marketing in the first place was because his career coach badgered him into it, and even then he agreed to try it only on the condition that “it had to be free.”

I’m not making this up.

Giving credit where credit is due, that approach — plus a sweet FCPA niche — has served this particular lawyer well. But is it replicable, and can it scale? No.

Recently on the excellent Spin Sucks blog, guest blogger Andrew Hanelly discussed “Five Reasons the Intern Shouldn’t Run Social Media“:

  • Interns don’t live and breathe your brand
  • Interns aren’t forever
  • Interns stick too closely to the script
  • Interns aren’t always aware of the faux pas minefield
  • Interns aren’t compensated well enough for the pressure

I would add one more to that list: If you rely on interns to run your social media marketing, you’ll never be better than an intern at social media marketing. And that’s…OK.

Just remember, you get what you pay for.

My Picks for Notable Posts of the Week 2/4/11

Sometimes the best ideas in legal marketing are hiding in plain sight.

I think that’s the case with MCLE training. Practicing lawyers have to complete it to stay licensed, and judging by their bios, it seems like all of them have given a session at one time or another. So where are the firms that have made speakers bureau services and CLE training a distinguishing characteristic of their brand?

If you’ve already created a CLE presentation, why aren’t you tweaking and publicizing it for use with business and civic audiences? And if you have an inventory of general speakers bureau presentations, why aren’t you tuning them up into accredited CLE content?

CLE maven Tim Baran is one of the most visible and persuasive evangelists for leveraging CLE’s nexus with marketing, and in a Lawyerist post this week he reinforced how developing and presenting CLE content directly benefits the presenter, not just the audience. I was particularly pleased to see that he called out in-house training as an underutilized CLE opportunity, and he helpfully included a link to  Law Writing‘s excellent state by state guide to rules for in-house courses.

Here’s an idea starter: MCLE-palooza.

Nothing concentrates the mind on MCLE like the looming fulfillment deadline. And as with filing taxes, every year there is a sizable cohort of procrastinators scrambling to finish — or even start — their MCLE. Seems like some enterprising firm, local bar association or LMA chapter could turn that confluence of supply and demand into a great publicity event.

Imagine a Saturday of back-to-back MCLE sessions. Donate the space, have vendors underwrite the lunch, tie it in with a local charity, get a local TV station to cover it and — Voila! — marketing gold.

One successful example is the Austin Bar Association’s People’s Law School, which offers free informal courses taught by lawyers to the general public on topics like family law, wills and estate planning, criminal law, credit repair and the legal process. Why not an MCLE version for the lawyers themselves?

I’ve been flogging this idea for years now, but so far no takers. I hope this time someone grabs it and runs with it — and gives me credit, of course.

Back to Basics 2.0: Online Networking Brings Law Firm Marketing Back to Its Roots

Lawyers were the original kings (and queens) of networking and referrals — what we today call word-of-mouth marketing. It’s in your professional DNA — cultivating connections through clubs, civic organizations, alumni groups, local/state/national bar associations. Those membership organizations knew that their fortunes relied on their talent for enabling professionals to connect and network. That’s why so much of the innovation in law firm social media is being driven by entrepreneurs who are re-creating that model online.

Lawyers are still not entirely sold on the cost/benefits of blogging, Facebook is problematic on several fronts, and Twitter — well, that’s still a bridge too far for most. But LinkedIn? That’s a no-brainer. It’s a one-stop search shop, identifying potential connections based on schools, jobs and organizations listed in you online profile. Once connected, you can cultivate those connections through automated updates and group conversations.

Avvo and Justia help individuals connect with lawyers and legal information — the love child of classified ads and self-help books, on steroids.

Membership directories are traditional, familiar and intuitive — and even easier to use and more valuable now because of advanced search functionality. That’s why we can expect to see law schools, alumni associations and bar associations coming on strong with networking, educational and referral tools.

Columbus Explores Online Social Marketing for Lawyers

Update: The State Bar of Texas recently rolled out its new site design and user experience. The site’s architecture cleanly and evenhandedly reflects the duality that all bar associations face: providing optimal value and utility to both members and the public.

(Originally posted 4/23/2010) In yesterday’s post about online social networking and word-of-mouth marketing for lawyers, I commented that bar associations were likely to leverage their credibility and experience to create innovative services for members and the general public.

John Sirman at the State Bar of Texas kindly directed me to the Columbus (Ohio) Bar Association’s ColumbusLawyerFinder.com site, which was created to provide a reliable online source of local lawyers and Ohio legal information.

I spent some time on the site last night and this morning, and found it to be a very good user experience. If cultivated and publicized properly, it could develop into a formidable marketing platform. It has a lot going for it.

Easy to use: There are just two large tabs across the top of the home page: “Find an Attorney,” which sorts and searches by various criteria, and “Legal Tool Kit,” which offers printer-friendly lists, questions, links, and information about legal issues. Each tab has the same 15 practice categories in the dropdown menu (e.g. “D.U.I./Criminal and Traffic Defense,” “Small Business Law and Litigation,” “Family Law, Divorce, Support and Custody”), so one click gets you to directly to the page you need.

The attorney profiles are standard “tombstone” fare, but they include a nice personalizing touch through the Q&A format “Get to know me” tab. Lawyers can add color and context to their profiles by including answers to questions like:

  • Why did you decide to become an attorney?
  • What experiences (work and personal) help you to be a better attorney?
  • What makes your law firm unique?
  • Describe your ideal client.
  • What made you choose your primary area of law?
  • Describe your personal interests and hobbies.

“Business casual” look/feel: It’s clearly a professional site, but the Twitteresque appearance — the bird image, the “mod” rounded sans-serif type in loose blocks against a white background — helps makes the serious content feel accessible and not intimidating.

Local: No one wants to have to drill down through a national — or even state — search menu to find a local attorney.

Trustworthy: Come on, it’s the bar association. Even the most brazen hucksters and charlatans likely would not try to screw around with the bar. A link on the home page takes you directly to the criteria used to screen participating attorneys

To be listed on Columbus Lawyer Finder, attorneys must meet high standards:

  • They must be in good standing with the Ohio Supreme Court and be free of any pending disciplinary investigations or proceedings.
  • They must alert the Columbus Bar Association if they are notified that they become the subject of a professional investigation at any time in the future.
  • They must be approved by the Columbus Bar Board of Governors.
  • They must be a Columbus Bar Member.
  • They must carry at least $100,000 in professional liability insurance for all areas but Injury and Accidents which must carry at least $500,000.
  • They must agree to use and provide a written fee agreement to every client.
  • They must agree to participate in fee arbitration with a client if necessary.
  • They must show a personal commitment to professionalism and sign the nine “Commitments to Clients.”

Those commitments are:

  1. To treat clients with respect and courtesy.
  2. To handle their legal matters competently and diligently, in accordance with the highest standards of the profession.
  3. To charge a reasonable fee and to explain in advance how that fee will be computed and billed.
  4. To return phone calls promptly.
  5. To keep clients informed and provide them with copies of important papers.
  6. To respect my clients’ decisions on the objectives to be pursued in their case, as permitted by law and the rules of professional conduct, including whether or not to settle their case.
  7. To work with other participants in the legal system to make our legal system more accessible and responsive.
  8. To preserve the clients’ confidences learned during our lawyer-client relationship.
  9. To exhibit the highest degree of ethical conduct in accordance with the Code of Professional Responsibility.

The biggest drawback, of course, is the lack of user-generated content like ratings and reviews. Some moderated conversations for the general topic would be interesting, too.

I wish them good luck, and I look forward to seeing how the platform evolves in Columbus — and is emulated elsewhere.