Results tagged “legal ethics” from Marketing Attorney Blog

September 19, 2014

Attorney's Fake Celebrity Photo Gallery on Website Draws Suspension

Sangary-Article-201409171849.jpgCall her the Zelig or Forrest Gump of California attorneys, but you can also call her "suspended."

I've seen a lot of fun and strange law firm web site ethics issues come up since the mid-90s, but it is refreshing to see that there are still new takes on the concept of "deceptive and misleading" lawyer advertising online in 2014.

A State Bar Court judge in Sacramento, California has recommended a six month suspension for a Los Angeles attorney who put Photoshop to use in manipulating a photo gallery on her website filled with fake pictures of her with various politicians, celebrities and star athletes. The court found that this photo gallery amounted to deceptive advertising. Read the highly entertaining opinion here.

Svetlana Sangary's website describes her litigation boutique in similar ways to most related practices. However, when contacted by the state bar investigating the photos (and another complaint), there was a failure to respond for many months.

Perhaps, she was at the Emmys or lunching with Jamie Foxx--both sounding far more fun than answering to this stuff in court--but was more likely photoshopping another shot out of US Weekly. Among the interesting tidbits in the handling of this matter are:

  • She refused to remove the photos in question even after contacted by the State Bar.
  • Her 16 page response also included 148 pages of exhibits ranging from an article about Natalie Portman (now that is a photo opp I'd enjoy) to an array of e-mails and canceled checks.
  • The judge noted her response as "bizarre".
  • She cited a First Amendment right to remain silent.

There are politicians from both parties--Obama, Biden, Gore, two Clintons and a Schwarzenegger to name a few. Hollywood elite from Streisand to Clooney; DiCaprio to Baldwin. People that annoy me like Dr. Phil and Larry King. People I'd like to hang with like Jennifer Garner and Magic Johnson (and Paris Hilton, although I would not usually admit to that one).

Perhaps more entertaining are some of the Yelp reviews I read in looking to learn more about this attorney. Her 6.1 on Avvo will likely take a hit, since that included a 5/5 for professional conduct. My guess is that someone is vetting each accolade, testimonial and result posted for her in various places online.

It was probably close to a decade ago that an attorney came up to me after one of my internet marketing ethics programs for the Pennsylvania Bar Institute in Philadelphia. He was somewhat irate (and annoyed) by a Philadelphia lawyer that displayed a "photo gallery" on his website of him with various politicians and celebrities. He believed that the use of such photos were deceptive and misleading--suggesting to potential clients that he had relationships with these folks and potentially might be suggesting they are clients.

Now this CLE audience member actually expected me to "do something about it." I still remember responding that I was not the ethics police and that he was free to report this website to the state bar. I don't know if he ever did. But I did start using that website as an example in my seminars of a "potential issue." Just minutes ago, I went back online to see if that photo gallery was still a part of the law firm website in 2014--and sure enough, it was. In a twist of irony, many of the politicians and celebs in those photos are the exact same people photoshopped in Ms. Sangary's gallery--although I do believe his to be authentic.

You might ask me why I don't "name names" in this example (as I often do). Well, I'm still not the ethics police. And while I don't know the guy personally, he seems like a good person and is involved in some related organizations outside of the legal profession that I'm also in. So, I'd rather just be nice about it (this time). However, I've always suggested in my CLEs that a proper disclaimer in regard to the photo gallery and his relationships might go a long way to appeasing anyone believing the use to be deceptive and misleading advertising. And I might suggest that these two photo gallery examples--from Philadelphia and Los Angeles--will likely make it into my 2015 ethics CLE.

The marketer side of me finds both examples to be entertaining. Although I doubt she can fall back on the "no such thing as bad publicity" argument in this situation. The ethics attorney side of me wonders if the deceptive and misleading argument would still be an issue if indeed those photos were real. Perhaps that is a case of first impression somewhere else for another day.

For Ms. Sangary, the bar court judge also recommended a three year probationary period to go with the six month suspension, and a retaking of a professional responsibility exam. Only in Hollywood.

May 27, 2013

California State Bar Discusses Lawyer Website Warning Labels

red_flag.jpgRecently, a California State Bar committee discussed a controversial proposal that would put a red warning label on attorney profiles for those facing disciplinary charges. This would take the concept of a website disclaimer to new heights. Only in California. Actually, I'd say only in Florida. But, indeed, this comes out of the left coast.

The proposal came from State Bar prosecutor Jayne Kim. It prompted an outcry from defense attorneys that felt accusations that had not been fully litigated and proven in court would lead to a serious hit on a law firms' business.

The state delayed voting on the proposal until after a 60-day public comment period. Kim had argued that it was unnecessary, claiming it was simply an extension of a 2011 policy that required consumer alerts on profiles of attorneys formally charged with misappropriation of client funds or improper loan modification activities.

Reporter Saul Sugarman, writing in the San Francisco Daily Journal, said that some committee members wondered why consumer alerts only appear on pages of attorneys while formal charges are pending. In the current system, the alerts go away once lawyers are found culpable of misdeeds, though the details of discipline still appear at the base of their profiles.

Different states have different requirements as to what an attorney can and can't do before, during or after a disciplinary proceeding. The concept of a red warning label simply because an attorney is facing a charge does not seem to be reasonable. Maybe it is because I see what I personally consider unfair outcomes in some of these matters, while more flagrant transgressions often go unaddressed. This is certainly not a blanket concern. The majority of disciplinary counsel come to the proper conclusions. Yet, I still see some serious head scratchers, especially in my area of focus--advertising, marketing and solicitation regulations. Attorneys--defense or otherwise--are right in that a red warning on a website profile is a death knell of sorts. Who is going to use an attorney with a red flag right on their own website bio? Nobody. You'd likely look to minimize your existence online until the matter was resolved. And even then, state bar listings and attorney profile sites on some high profile legal directories might also show the pending discipline.

While the overarching concept of "deceptive and misleading" is my mantra in looking at law firm website marketing from an ethics perspective, I also believe in certain components of "real world" promotion. A discerning consumer will look beyond the glossy, polished profile the attorney writes for him or herself and seek comments from more objective sites. A plumber's website does not say anything about the dozens of BBB files opened up. I guess you go to Angie's List, or in this case, the state bar.
I can't imagine that the plaintiffs' bar will sit back and see this proposal come to fruition. There could be room for a compromise in putting this data into the "disclaimer" component of a website, where a little additional due diligence by the end user is required. Placement on the biography itself would be quite the hardship.

This is a conversation worth watching.

October 24, 2012

WMT: Law Firm Websites - Ethics and Compliance Issues

wmt-logo-24b.pngIn my monthly column on internet marketing for lawyers in Web Marketing Today, I tackle the sticky issue of ethics and compliance for law firm websites. If you had told me when I started teaching ethics CLEs on this subject in 1997 that I'd be this well-versed on the subject--and it would become a niche area of expertise for my practice, I'd have laughed. But lo and behold, the Rules of Professional Conduct have become my Ten Commandments. There are plenty of golden calves and false idols--but I won't name names. Let's just say that websites are now the tip of the iceberg in a land of Groupons and "ask the lawyer" sites, getting the disclaimer language right should be child's play.