If you’re going to advertise your legal services on the Internet, you need to consider both California and federal ethics rules from the designing of your website to corresponding with clients or prospective clients online.
California’s Internet advertising regulations for attorneys are in Cal Rules of Prof Cond 1-400, Article 9.5 (Legal Advertising) of the State Bar Act (Bus & P C §§6157-6159.2), and California State Bar advisory opinions.
Here are some of the basic rules California attorneys should always consider when creating and maintaining a professional website:
- Advertisements cannot be false or misleading and should be factually substantiated. Cal Rules of Prof Cond 1-400(C).
- Attorney websites are generally considered communications and not solicitations within the meaning of Cal Rules of Prof Cond 1-400(A). State Bar Formal Opinion No. 2001-155.
- Attorneys should use disclaimers on their websites to prevent jurisdictional problems, e.g., that the attorney is advertising only in California and doesn’t seek to represent someone based solely on a visit to the site. The website should also set out the attorney’s practice areas, office location, and the jurisdictions in which the attorney is licensed.
- California attorneys who are licensed or have offices in other states should take steps to ensure that their websites comply with ethics regulations in those states. State Bar Formal Opinion No. 2001-155.
- Attorneys with websites that contain an e-mail address or communication forms may effectively disclaim that they owe a duty of confidentiality to visitors only if the disclaimer states in plain language that any submissions to the attorney aren’t confidential. Note that it’s not enough simply to have a visitor agree that no attorney-client relationship or confidential relationship has been formed. State Bar Formal Opinion No. 2005-168.
- Communications with prospective clients in a chat room aren’t prohibited “solicitations,” but attorneys should be careful to avoid violating other ethics regulations, e.g., attorney participation in a mass disaster victim chat room violates regulations preventing communications that intrude or cause duress. State Bar Formal Opinion No. 2004-166.
California attorneys should also be aware of the general principles stated in the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct. In addition, although they don’t have the force of law, legal websites should adhere to the ABA Best Practice Guidelines, which were developed to provide guidance to legal website developers and to promote the development of quality legal websites.
CEB’s award-winning Internet Law and Practice in California covers many issues around advertising on the Internet that will help you and your business clients stay on the ethical and legal path. On the related issue of attorney ethics and online networking, check out CEB’s program Managing a Virtual Law Office, available On Demand.
Other CEB blog posts of interest:
- Don’t Check Your Ethics at the Virtual Door
- Everything You Tweet Can Be Held Against You!
- Should You Go Solo?
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