Marketing Ethics for Lawyers to Follow in 2020 and Beyond
Advertising and marketing have always played an important role in increasing a company’s brand awareness and in helping them acquire new customers to reach their corporate financial goals. Law firms are no exception. With the increasing competitiveness among law firms, it is extremely important that they understand the fundamentals of marketing in a competitive marketplace.
As early as the 1970s, most states didn’t allow lawyers to engage in any type of marketing efforts. In 1977, the US Supreme Court case of Bates v. Arizona, 433 US 350, changed all this and held that advertising regarding attorneys’ services was “commercially protected speech,” according to the First Amendment, and that truthful advertising should be allowed as a matter of public policy. The court held that lawyers serve society and that allowing them to advertise their services would provide consumers with valuable information about available legal assistance.
After this landmark case, attorneys could advertise to obtain clients. They relied on traditional marketing methods, like display ads, brochures, business cards, and word-of-mouth advertising. Although these marketing strategies are still effective in 2019 and beyond, lawyers must also combine them with other creative marketing strategies—including, but not limited to, pay-per-click; search engine optimization; email, article, video, and digital marketing; and social media marketing.
Additionally, attorneys who want to stay ahead of the marketing game must have stellar and properly optimized web content, engaging social media and blog posts, informative guest articles, engaging display ads, and more. However, unlike regular corporations, law firms are held to a higher standard of responsibility, in terms of marketing, than their corporate counterparts.
Law firms have to remain in compliance with rules and regulations concerning ethics and professional responsibilities, especially in advertising. This means that attorneys and their law firms have to be careful when treading the path of marketing their legal services. They have to engage in ethical and truthful marketing practices and have to steer clear of false or misleading marketing strategies.
That said, what are the ethics of marketing legal services? What should attorneys avoid to ensure that they don’t engage in any professional responsibility violations? Well, let’s have a look at the dos and don’ts of legal marketing.
Abide by Prospective Clients’ and Existing Clients’ Wishes
As an attorney, you have to be mindful when engaging in electronic marketing strategies. In my home state of Illinois, attorneys can’t continue to contact prospective and/or existing clients if they tell that attorney to not contact them. See Rule 7.3(b) of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct for details.
Basically this regulation stipulates that you should never spam someone’s email or regular mail, even if they initially agreed to give you their email or physical mailing address in exchange for a free report or other offering. Therefore, if the individual asks you to “Take me off your list,” you must do so immediately. If you don’t, you will be in violation of Rule 7.3(b) or another professional conduct rule in your state.
Also note that certain state professional conduct rules, like Rule 7.3(c) in Illinois, require the words, “Advertising Material,” on the outside of every physical envelope mailed to everyone, as well as at the beginning and the end of every recorded or electronic solicitation—unless said contact person is exempt from this rule.
Avoid Making Misleading or False Claims
An important ethical element of legal marketing is that you practice honesty and refrain from making unsubstantiated or false claims that can’t be verified. Rule 7.1 of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct states that a law firm or an attorney cannot engage in misleading or false communication in reference to their service offerings. Any such miscommunication is a clear violation of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct.
One rule of thumb: Would a rational person read such statement and be misled by it? What would they believe to be true? If they would be misled by such statement, then you must alter the content so that you don’t violate any ethics rules. Always double-check facts before making any statements. Additionally, if you include any statistical information in your ads, make sure that it is correct.
Don’t Set Unrealistic Expectations in Your Ads
Whenever you create online and off-line marketing strategies, make sure that you maintain high ethical standards and don’t engage in any type of marketing efforts that might lead the reader to false assumptions. That is, set realistic expectations for your clients and be clear that “Results may vary.”
Yes, you can have a testimonial page but don’t include statements like “My lawyer got me more money than I ever dreamed of.” Although it might be true for this one client, this statement might create an expectation in the reader that you can do the same for all your clients. Instead, you should only include testimonials that share verifiable factual information and don’t forget to add disclaimers to keep client expectations in check.
Never Use Comparative Statements If Your State Disallows It
Some states have specific rules about using comparative statements in your advertising copy. So, if you’re in a state that disallows this wording, you should avoid it. For instance, in Illinois, you are not allowed to use comparative declarations, like, “We are the best bankruptcy law practice in Illinois.” The fact that such statements cannot be proven with verified facts leads them to fall under the category of “false and misleading communication.” On the other hand, you may be allowed to mention a few successes of your firm through statistical data, like recent court cases won. But make sure that such data is factual and verifiable and current. Either way, check your state’s professional conduct rules and then find a way to creatively convey your skills and instill confidence in prospective clients without violating any rules.
Avoid Claiming to Be an Expert
Several states have rules prohibiting attorneys from portraying themselves as an expert or a specialist. These rules have been created to ensure that no individual practicing law can make misleading claims in relation to themselves and/or their services.
I often recommend that law firms work with a marketing consultant that has legal experience for just this reason. I recently reviewed a prospect’s website and it stated among other things, that the firm specialized in family law. This is a big mistake in Illinois. Had the prospect worked with a marketing consultant who was also an attorney or who had legal experience, this could have been avoided.
At the end of the day, effective marketing is the key to having a successful law practice. However, law firms must practice honesty in all their marketing and advertising efforts. By following the above-mentioned guidelines, firms can avoid ethics violations, can win the trust of clients, and can bolster long-term growth for their law firms, while assisting those who need the legal help the most.