In August of this year, the ABA Standing Committe On Ethics And Professional Responsibility released Formal Opinion 10-457 on Lawyer Websites. While following the guidelines of the opinion may not make you completely compliant with your state bar’s rules on law firm websites, it does provide some excellent guidance of what you should be considering and where state bar rules may likely be moving.
The opinion’s Introduction outlines some of the most common issues surrounding law firm websites:
Many lawyers and law firms have established websites as a means ofcommunicating with the public. A lawyer website can provide to anyone with Internet access a wide array of information about the law, legal institutions, and the value of legal services. Websites also offer lawyers a twenty-four hour marketing tool by calling attention to the particular qualifications of a lawyer or a law firm, explaining the scope of the legal services they provide and describing their clientele, and adding an electronic link to contact an individual lawyer.
The obvious benefit of this information can diminish or disappear if the websitevisitor misunderstands or is misled by website information and features. A website visitor might rely on general legal information to answer a personal legal question. Another might assume that a website’s provision of direct electroniccontact to a lawyer implies that the lawyer agrees to preserve the confidentialityof information disclosed by website visitors.
For lawyers, website marketing can give rise to the problem of unanticipated reliance or unexpected inquiries or information from website visitors seeking legal advice. This opinion addresses some of the ethical obligations that lawyers should address in considering the content and features of their websites.
According to the opinion, law firm websites may include accurate information that is not misleading about lawyers at the firm and the law firm itself. The site may include contact information and information about the practice.
The opinion also states that information on law firm websites should be updated regularly. Additionally, specific information identifying clients may be disclosed, as long as informed consent is acquired.
The Standing Committee also recognizes that law firm websites can assist the public by providing general information about the law applicable to a lawyer’s area(s) of practice, as well as links to other websites, blogs, or forums with related information.
In order to avoid misleading readers, the Committee advises lawyers to make sure that legal information is accurate and current and to include qualifying statements or disclaimers that “may preclude a finding that a statement is likely to create unjustified expectations or otherwise mislead a prospective client.”
While the Committee falls short of drawing the exact line between legal information and legal advice, they do advise that both the context and content of the information offered are helpful in distinguishing between the two, which admittedly, is not entirely clear.
The opinion also addresses communications between the legal professionals and visitors to the site. The Committee points out that lawyers have the ability on their websites to control features and content so as to invite, encourage, limit, or discourage the flow of information to and from website visitors. Lawyers should consider what level of discourse they wish to have with website visitors. For many lawyers, discouraging the submission of confidential information through the site is advisable.
In one of the more helpful sections of the opinion, the Committee provides some rather specific guidance in terms of warnings or cautionary statements on a lawyer’s website. These statements may effectively limit, condition, or disclaim a lawyer’s obligation to a website reader. Some things to consider in your website warnings:
- A client-lawyer relationship has not been created
- The visitor’s information will not be kept confidential
- That legal advice has not been given
- That the lawyer will be prevented from representing an adverse party.
As with many areas of the law and lawyer ethics, the standard will be whether the meaning can be understood by a reasonable person.
While this opinion provides some important guidance on ethical considerations for law firm websites, you should always check with your state bar about ethics as they apply to websites and/or legal blogs in your jurisdiction(s).