Articles Posted in Legal Ethics

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ABA_Journal_June_July_2020-225x300In the June/July 2020 issue of the ABA Journal, Cynthia Sharp asks me about how attorneys can best respond to negative online reviews in “Trashed by Clients Online? Ethically responding to negative reviews,” a subject that I’ve discussed with many attorneys and clients over the years.

It is probably the topic that brings me the most questions during my marketing ethics-related CLE programs. In a recent webinar for the American Legal Institute (ALI), Ethically Navigating the Three Rs: Lawyer Ratings, Rankings, and Reviews, I focus solely on this area as it relates to attorney advertising. And I’ve written about the subject matter multiple times in my ABA Law Practice magazine column as well. Mostly, because unlike many areas of attorney marketing ethics, this one is quite “real” to many lawyers that have been bitten by disgruntled former clients, or unhappy ex-employees, shady competitors or just someone that plain doesn’t like you. The combustible mix of not being able to opt-out of the review process and the sheer fact that this stuff can be highly visible in your online portfolio can be deadly. And many attorneys have responded poorly—and violated ethics rules in the process.

The power of the online review—on Google, Yelp, Facebook, or numerous sites that are legal-specific—has grown exponentially in recent years. Early on, the issues often stemmed from reviews on legal site Avvo (which rewarded attorneys for having reviews in their profiles), and Yelp—the initial home of choice for the disgruntled…there is nothing like being ripped by a Yelper. Facebook could be especially critical to the consumer-facing law practice. But it was really the elevation of reviews on Google that increased the potential for reward and damage. If you think about the evolution of Google in the online marketplace—from sponsored results to adwords; SEO spends on organic results, local/mapped searching and various efforts at developing a social media component (mostly without success), the incorporation of Google Reviews and the related visibility in a search result puts a spotlight on them for the end-user and adds another concern for reputation management of your online portfolio.

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ABA’s Law Practice Today Webzine

Being super-active in the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Division means collaboration is a necessity. So in the November 2019 edition of Law Practice Today (LPT), I get to combine my role as Associate Editor of the webzine with my participation in the Ethics & Professionalism Committee to formulate our annual “Ethics Issue.”

Of course, that typically means I will need to contribute a feature as well, so I’ve authored “Maintaining Ethical Boundaries on the Gray Web of Marketing,” which discusses the difficulty many law firms are having today in determining how to effectively and ethically market themselves on the Internet without violating the Rules of Professional Conduct. Suffice it to say–easier said than done. And as the title suggests, it is far from black & white. There are issues of jurisdictional boundaries, fee-sharing, unauthorized practice of law and understanding where the RPC, ethics opinions and enforcement kick in (or don’t). I recently told a colleague that the sophistication level of aggressive online law marketers is well beyond the long arm of the (disciplinary) law. I used to put a ton of time and energy into making sure there was ethics compliance with a “standard” law firm website—text, disclaimers, bar admissions, etc. Today a typical website—regardless of the look & feel—is pretty ho-hum at the end of the day—office locations, bios, practices, industries, representative matters, blah, blah, blah…but it is in the realm of SEO, cookies, social media and all sorts of traffic drivers where the real issues lie below the surface of the World Wide Web. Have a read.

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ALI-300x108Of all the topics I have presented on in 22+ years of teaching law marketing ethics CLEs, my program on navigating the Three Rs—Ratings, Rankings and Reviews—may be my favorite. If you need your ethics credit, find your law firm often enveloped in dealing with the 3 Rs, or just enjoy the subject matter, join me for this live webcast on Tuesday, October 29, 2019 from 1-2 pm ET.

REGISTER NOW:  Ethically Navigating the Three Rs: Lawyer Ratings, Rankings, and Reviews

In putting together the ALI program, I was amazed not only by how much new information and materials were out there, but how much this area of lawyer advertising ethics had changed in recent years—sometimes for the better, often not. Ratings and Rankings have continued to grow exponentially—as if that was even seemingly possible. Outcries over the years to clamp down on the proliferation of businesses in this space have not only gone unanswered but have led to even more players in the space. There is simply too much money to be made, and plenty of egos to feed. But it is the impact of online reviews that have had the greatest impact among the three Rs. I get more audience questions after a CLE presentation about painful and problematic first-hand experiences in an attorney having to handle the impact of a negative review. On the flip side, many law firms are finding that the online review space is not only unavoidable but can be lucrative.

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ABA’s Law Practice Today

Ethical issues and dilemmas hit the legal profession from all angles. In serving as issue editor for the September 2018 edition of the ABA’s Law Practice Today (LPT) webzine, I sought to address a wide variety of subjects from attorneys with different practices and backgrounds.

Of course, I authored my own piece, What Do the Revised Rules for Lawyer Advertising Mean for Me?, recapping the recently adopted Resolution 101, passed by the House of Delegates at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago this past August. These suggested amendments to the Model Rules (7.1 through 7.5) relate to the realities of today’s lawyer advertising. While change is long overdue, it will be interesting to see the true impact that they may or may not have on state bar regulations and subsequent enforcement.

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ALI-300x108While the calendar year might not turn for another four months, the new “bar year” is here. Of course, for some of us, the New Year is now—with Rosh Hashanah falling days after my upcoming ALI webcast. It is a time of reflection and planning, and also atonement for the one or two sins that I may have somehow committed in the past year. This is a good time for evaluating your current business development efforts and determining which you’d like to continue or change in the coming year. Regardless of personal philosophy, your network is the centerpiece of business development. Many firms will now be asking you to figure out your BD plan for 2019, including budget requests. This is also one of the primary times of the year when lawyers put a little more effort into “non-billable” activity and involvement. I always say that the key periods are post-Labor Day until Thanksgiving; and again from post-New Year’s Day (the January 1st edition) until Memorial Day. We work most of our magic in those two sweet spots on the calendar.

REGISTER NOW:  Building a Better Business Network: Getting More Out of Contacts, Connections, and Clients

Join me for this live ALI webcast on Friday, September 7, 2018, from 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. Eastern. In one hour, pick up a CLE ethics credit and learn about the best ways to build your network within the ethical boundaries that we all follow in our respective states’ Rules of Professional Conduct. We’ll also go through the recent changes to the ABA Model Rules as they relate to marketing, advertising and solicitation in 7.1-7.5, just approved by the House of Delegate in August during the ABA Annual Meeting.

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Home of AAJ 2018 Annual Convention

The American Association for Justice (AAJ) Annual Convention that recently took place July 7-10, 2018 in Denver, Colorado, was an eye-opening experience. I was asked to speak on Avoiding Ethical Missteps in Promoting Your Firm, as part of a Professional Negligence Section CLE Program track. Besides a multitude of CLE programs on themes that ranged from trampoline injuries to the hugely popular (standing room only) sexual assault litigation group programs in what is now the #MeToo era, I found that a walk through the Expo Hall offered dozens of vendors providing products and services geared toward marketing, business development, and simply getting leads…and converting them. Some were quite entrepreneurial and unique; some made me a bit queasy (regardless of whether I was wearing my marketing attorney hat or ethics attorney hat, or both). There are seemingly hundreds of companies with the “best” web development, SEO and PPC strategies. And, yet, there were products that got me to stop, watch a demo, and grab a business card.

The track in which I participated as a faculty member, Professional Negligence, offered an excellent day of subjects and attorney speakers, including: Finding Damages Through Every Witness Defense and Plaintiff, J. Jude Basile; my Avoiding Ethical Missteps in Promoting Your Firm session; Cross-Examination of Defendants in Medical Negligence Cases, Paul A. Casi; Captivating the Jury, William P. Lightfoot; Leveling the Playing Field:  A Jury Selection System that Roots Out Bias, Keith R. Mitnik; Practical Application of Electronic Medical Records for Trial, James Puga and Don Hanson; The Affordable Care Act:  Are Future Damages a Thing of the Past?, Emily G. Thomas; Topics in Calculating Economic Damages for Personal Injury and Wrongful Death, Gene A. Trevino; Direct Examination or “The Heart of the Trial”:  Direct Examination From A to Z, Thomas J. Vesper; and Avoiding Legal Malpractice, David L. Wikstrom.

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LPcover_JulyAugust2018-234x300Whenever I pass a roadside diner promising something like “world’s best cherry pie,” I think about lawyer advertising restrictions. Because no law firm or lawyer could tout themselves as the best or greatest—and many of the taglines, phrases and symbols used to market products and services to consumers are restricted or outright prohibited in the legal profession.

Of course, I’m a sucker for that cherry pie. And it never is remotely close to the best I’ve ever had, but I also know the difference between a marketing message and stark reality. Which all somehow leads into the topic of my marketing column in the July/August 2018 issue of the ABA’s Law Practice Magazine, Law Marketing Model Rule Revisions – Better Late than Never?

It remains to be seen what will actually happen to the proposed model rule changes to law marketing and advertising when it gets to the ABA House of Delegates in August. After all, it is a long way from the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility (which arrived via multiple reports starting in 2015 from the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers—APRL) to the House floor. The debates at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Vancouver this past February volleyed back and forth between those that thought the suggested revisions went too far, and others who firmly believed they did not go far enough. Of course, once something is approved—state bars often like to remind us that they are nothing more than “model” rules, and that the states will decide themselves what direction lawyer advertising should go in down the pike.

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NewMexicoCLE-300x156Recently, I had the privilege of serving on a panel at the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Division continuing legal education program on the ethics of virtual and multi-jurisdictional lawyering in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The program was co-sponsored by the State Bar of New Mexico, and took place on May 18, 2018 at the Inn and Spa at Loretto.

Moderated by Albuquerque-based practitioner Charles Gurd, panelists included fellow Philadelphia area attorney Dan Siegel, and Charity Anastasio, Associate Practice Management Advisor at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. It struck me that the audience interest, interaction and participation were greater than in the vast majority of CLEs that I teach. These two intertwining and overlapping issues—virtual law practices and multi-state jurisdictional issues—go hand in hand, and often create as many questions as answers.

When I’m driving down I-95 and leave New Jersey to cross into Delaware, I know it. When I then cross from Delaware into Maryland, I know it as well. I also know that if I’m caught speeding in Delaware, the only police I need to worry about are the ones with Delaware on the side panels. Of course, reciprocity when it comes to fines and points are sometimes blurry, but not nearly as confusing as crossing state lines in your law practice, typically on the Internet. However, as many of the CLE audience opined, most lawyers today have practices that are not confined to one or two states.

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ALI-300x108When ALI CLE asked me to present an ethics CLE on lawyer advertising, I hesitated. After all, I’ve been teaching this course across the country for more than 20 years. But the timing was right. There were hot-button issues sitting on my desk, and the equally red-hot debate over making the first substantial changes to the Rules of Professional Conduct related to law firm marketing since Bates v Arizona in 1977. So I said yes.

In the days leading up to my presentation (taped on March 23rd), there were articles in the local (Philadelphia) daily newspaper discussing geo-targeting billboards for Johnnie Cochran’s law firm (despite the fact that the famed OJ Simpson attorney passed away in 2005). There was U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissing the remaining (false advertising) claims in Larry Pitt’s lawsuit against competitor Lundy Law. I discussed earlier Pitt-Lundy battles in the 2013 version of my CLE. Yet they are both news items here in 2018. Social Media has been an integral part of my CLE since flashing up my MySpace profile in 2007. While I tout Facebook as being an integral part of marketing for many attorneys, the news was also covering just how our data was being used by the likes of Cambridge Analytica—that same market data we use to generate prospective clients was also being used for evil, and not good. The news was not fake, but apparently some of the Facebook users were. And, of course, there is the debate over proposed changes to the ABA model rules (for advertising and solicitation), scheduled to go before the House of Delegates this August during the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago. So if that is just what is going on in my neck of the woods, and at the national level, you can imagine what else is out there.

If you are in need of an ethics credit for continuing legal education compliance and/or your law firm markets—this is a perfect use of one hour to catch up on the latest trends and discussions related to the always-prickly subject matter of appropriate (and inappropriate) lawyer advertising and solicitation.

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ABA Midyear Meeting, Vancouver, B.C., 2018

If you are attending the ABA Midyear Meeting in Vancouver the first weekend in February, reside in the B.C. area or simply are looking to escape to Canada (as so many U.S. citizens and non-citizens now are), be sure to attend this free CLE program, Fishing for Prospects – Ethical Limitations Can Create Muddy Waters in Catching New Clients on Saturday, February 3, 2018 from 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. PST at the Vancouver Marriott Pinnacle Downtown.

This ABA CLE, co-sponsored by the Law Practice Division and the Young Lawyers Division focuses on ethical strategies for business development and relationship building.  We will cover ethic rules and related pitfalls when soliciting new clients and advertising your practice. The Rules of Professional Conduct, various US Supreme Court cases and numerous state bar ethics opinions can create an often-unseen myriad of issues when soliciting new clients.

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