How Do You Know What Is “False” or “Misleading”?

December 9, 2019

“A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.”

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Don’t lie in your advertising and you won’t get into trouble. In practice, however, making sure you stay on the right side of this rule is a little more complicated. As firms look ahead to their marketing plans for 2020, this is an ideal time to review the ABA’s guidelines for advertising. At Page 2, we advise our clients to apply these guidelines to all other forms of communication as well, including email newsletters, website content, blogs and social media.

In a recent three-part series on ethics in advertising, Attorney at Work counsels attorneys on what not to do, including:

-Don’t lie about your accomplishments. Everything listed in your attorney bios should be accurate. And when an attorney leaves the firm, you must remove his or her bio from the website.

-Don’t misrepresent the size of your firm or the scope of your services. If you are a solo practitioner, don’t include “& Associates” after your name. Don’t call your firm “full service” unless you really do cover most practice areas. Don’t call yourself a global law firm if you don’t have offices in other countries.

-Be careful about numbers. Firms like to add up the collective experience of their partners and say they have “more than 50 years practicing law” when the firm has only been existence for ten years. This is potentially misleading. Same goes for quoting dollar amounts won for verdicts and settlements. Don’t add all the individual wins together to inflate the figure. 

-Don’t omit facts about your firm or your cases. If you won a sizable verdict but the client never saw the money because the case was overturned on appeal, you may not list only the original verdict. Include the year of any awards you’ve won. A 20-year-old honor should not be presented as if it is current.

-Don’t cherry-pick reviews from online sites or represent paid testimonials as anything other than what they are. This could be deemed misleading.

-Familiarize yourself with the specific rules in your state. Some states have added additional language to help attorneys understand how to interpret the ABA rule.

For additional information, check out this helpful checklist from the Virginia State Bar. While plain common sense and honesty should be able to steer us through most of these questions around advertising, some scenarios turn out to be tricky. When in doubt, call your friendly neighborhood communication professionals for help!