Articles Posted in Legal Ethics

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aba_yld_logo.jpgIf you are attending the upcoming ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, California, you are welcome to attend this complimentary continuing legal education program being put on by the ABA Young Lawyers Division, at the Palace Hotel (Presidio, Second Floor) on Friday, August 9, 2013 from 11 am-noon PT. For more information, click here, or contact me directly for more information.

Moderated by Amy Drushal, a partner at Trenam Kemker in Tampa, Florida, I will offer tips and strategies alongside panelist Walter Karnstein, in-house counsel at Hewlett-Packard, who will provide the all-important corporate counsel perspective.

ETHICS CLE PROGRAM: Building a Book of Business: Ethical Boundaries and Sound Approaches to Business Development & Marketing

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hunter_lipton_image.jpgIt seems like I’ve been writing and speaking on Hunter v. Virginia State Bar for years! And that is because I have. But, alas, now it has come to a close with the United States Supreme Court once again deciding not to hear a case regarding attorney advertising regulation. One of these days, though!

With “cert. denied” just last month, I thought it was a good time to review the case in my monthly Web Marketing Today piece. I found the case fascinating on a number of fronts. There were components in which I found myself agreeing in part with both sides. While I did not always agree with Horace Hunter, I found his no-holds-barred desire to stand on principle–despite enormous time and cost–valiant. He believed that he had a right to free speech, and he also felt that the Bar was picking on the little guy. As I note in the piece, most attorneys and law firms would have simply capitulated to the original correspondence from the state bar. Not here. Hunter never backed down and openly spoke about the matter through years of litigation. You can argue that both sides won something.

On the flip side, I did agree with the Virginia Bar in viewing the blog through the lens of advertising regulations, simply because I did not think this particular state’s rules really hampered Hunter’s blog and content. In some states, I might not feel as strongly toward that point of view. But the reality is that state bars are simply not equipped to start parsing the gray areas that exist in today’s world of Internet communication–changing rapidly. Way too rapidly for the Rules of Professional Conduct to keep pace with the nuances.

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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.

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Florida.jpgAfter more than five years of deliberation and challenges such as Harrell v. Florida Bar, the Supreme Court of Florida’s new advertising rules take effect today, May 1, 2013. While Florida remains a “sticky state” when it comes to advertising ethics rules, the state does a great job of providing guidance for compliance on the state bar website.

Among the interesting areas to note is the loosening of restrictions as it relates to television, print and billboards, while there are stricter standards for websites and online marketing. The growth of directories, referrals services, social media and use of video (often through online use) over the last few years necessitated a tweaking and revisiting of some ethical obligations.

Why do I care so much about Florida when it comes to examining the RPC and ethics opinions for lawyers in that state? First, many other states follow Florida’s lead, not only in regard to guidelines and rules, but in terms of compliance and proactive examination. Second, many of my large law firm clients (especially in the northeastern United States) have a Florida office location–meaning the rules significantly impact marketing efforts. Finally, many law firms find that retiring attorneys, retiring clients and matters (sometimes tied to retiring too) find their way south to the warmer weather–the impact of Florida is felt by many law firms, thus the need to comply and be aware of the issues is necessary.

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texting.jpgEarlier this month, the Ohio Supreme Court’s ethics board ruled on the issue of lawyers soliciting clients by text message. Before you get all excited about sending out that next text to a prospective client, you’d better familiarize with the part of the opinion that mentions…so long as the advertising rules of the state are followed.

I’ve long discussed the ethics issues involved in a lawyer using text messaging as a communications tool with clients and prospective clients. There are plenty of lawyer ads and billboards that invite you to text. The area I had never put a lot of thought into was the proactive text–from the lawyer to the potential client offering up legal services. Even someone like me that is engaged in developing marketing strategies for law firms every day had not really embraced the initial touch of a text as a method of advertising communication.

Just as lawyers cull various public records to send direct mail to prospective clients–for criminal defense, tax issues, bankruptcy, personal injury–many are now taking a no-mail-barred approach and going right to the cellphone. It is quicker and cheaper, and likely as effective as the “cold call” letter. In many marketing efforts, we are quickly finding out that the mobile device is the most effective means of communication–through mobile sites, apps, tablets, etc. Why wait for snail mail when you can reach a person right now, wherever they may be? The cell phone is often available right on those accident reports and other potential sources of new business.

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For more than a decade, I’ve provided the Pennsylvania Bar Institute with an annual ethics program on a law marketing or advertising topic. Over the years I’ve focused on a different theme each year–starting with Internet marketing ethics in the late 90s to years where I’ve focused on Supreme Court cases, social media, rankings & ratings–whatever was new and “hot.” This year, I simply pick 13 current areas that have recently been addressed or still come into play.

This year’s program will likely change from the first presentation (April) to the second and third compliance period presentations in August and December. However, there are plenty areas of interest to go around. Included in this year’s program is discussion of trade names, websites, blogs, social media, Groupons, specialization, ratings & rankings, direct mail, mobile marketing, video and whatever new ethics opinion comes across my desk this week.

In April, I will present live for PBI in Pittsburgh on April 24 and home in Philadelphia on April 26. Check the PBI website for video replays and additional live dates later in the year.

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blog_icon1.jpgOn February 28th, the Virginia Supreme Court held that a disclaimer was required under the state’s advertising rules when posting results on a website. This is the latest outcome in the seemingly never-ending battle between Horace Hunter and the Virginia State Bar. This has been a widely watched case among ethics attorneys like myself that follow the bouncing ball of state bar advertising restrictions and first amendment scholars looking at the “free speech” argument. Is the next stop the U.S. Supreme Court?

Last April (2012), I was part of an ABA CLE panel that discussed “Is Your Legal Blog Compliant? Ethical considerations in the wake of Hunter v. Virginia State Bar.” The panel included Mr. Hunter, myself, employment law blogger Molly DiBianca and noted Virginia ethics attorney Tom Spahn. We discussed and debated the many issues in the case. It is effectively a case of first impression in the law blogosphere. That was prior to the case heading up the ladder to the state supreme court. Read more about the program in Your ABA’s e-news–Blogs can be legal minefields.

Blogs have been around since the late 1990s, yet this cyberspace battle in Virginia is the first real challenge by a state bar to the often cloudy areas of interpretation. Is a blog advertising, marketing, editorial, personal, or business? Where does the First Amendment end and the Model Rules of Professional Conduct begin? Should a state bar look at a blog as marketing or something else?

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newyorktimes.jpgRecent rulings and advisories by the National Labor Relations Board regarding social media policies in the workplace impact law firms in a variety of ways. Today’s New York Times article by Steven Greenhouse reviews how the NLRB is basically telling employers to scale back limitations as it relates to many social media policies that might be seen as illegal blanket restrictions.

Can you really stop Facebook and Twitter from happening in today’s workplace? Nope.

The NLRB says workers have a right to discuss work conditions freely and without fear of retribution, whether you are in the employee cafeteria or on Facebook. Although Facebook might have better food options (I said that. It is not in the article).

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In today’s Law360, reporter Bibeka Shrestha writes on Insurance agents taking Jacoby & Meyers LLP to task over advertising relating to Hurricane Sandy. In her article, she interviews me about my take on the complaint filed with the state court disciplinary committee by the Professional Insurance Agents of New York.

The PIA’s complaint stems from an ad that says, “If your business lost business due to the storm your insurance policy should cover it. If it doesn’t, your agent made an error. We’ll work to correct it.” The complaint cites 7.1(a)(2) of the NY RPC…the all-purpose “false, deceptive or misleading”…in regard to the advertisement’s content and message.

While I’m far from an expert on insurance law, I have trouble believing that every policy covers business interruption. I can see where agents might take offense to the suggestion that they are at fault, acting improperly or erroneous in every instance where a claim for such coverage is denied. I suggest in the article that a slight tweak from “your agent made an error” to “your agent might have made an error” would likely rectify the situation and not dilute the ad’s impact. Of course, I’ve had my fair share of fights over the years with insurance agents over what is and is not covered in a policy–so I’m not going to be a staunch defender of the industry. I’m talking to you buddy–the guy that claimed I could continue to sleep on a mattress in which a squirrel died and decomposed. “You don’t need a new one. We can just get it steam cleaned.” Yes, I got a new mattress. And, yes, I utilized my law degree in doing so. I totally get retaining counsel if you feel provisions of a policy are not being carried out.

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In August, I wrote about the Consumer Reports evaluation of online do-it-yourself legal sites (Legal DIY sites no match for a pro). This week, Wall Street Journal reporter Jennifer Smith writes on “No-Frill Legal Services Grow,” addressing many of the same DIY websites.

The impetus for the article is the lawsuit filed last month by against up-and-coming rival Rocket Lawyer. It is ironic that these entities are now fighting over what is and is not “free” in terms of form filing and other stuff where you apparently either don’t need a lawyer, or perhaps just need one that works for them at really cheap rates. Interesting side note: Both LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer have real lawyers doing the fighting–I don’t think they are using their own self service offerings.

The debate often revolves around the potential “unauthorized practice of law.” Regardless of the semantics involved, the consumer is thinking this is a cost-effective way to resolve a legal issue. It is not like this business is new. Strip malls stores (Divorce! Bankruptcy! Wills!) have provided similar services for decades. Storefronts such as “We the People” have largely evaporated (thanks in part to the Internet and in part to State Bar issues with unauthorized practice). In recent years, the online offerings have changed the language in describing offerings to something akin to providing documents and/or providing a lawyer somewhere that can answer questions.