Ethical Considerations for NC Law Firm Websites*

Whether creating or updating a website, law firms in NC have many decisions to make regarding design, function, and purpose. In addition, law firm websites must comply with the provisions of the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct that address legal advertising (Rules 7.1 through 7.5), as well as review NC Ethics Opinions regarding Advertising/Solicitation, Internet, Mailings, and Trade Names. Following is a non-comprehensive overview of rules and opinions that apply to NC law firm websites. If your firm provides legal services in multiple jurisdictions be aware that the rules and opinions from other states will also need to be applied.

NC State Bar Review on Request

There is no requirement that the NC State Bar review a website before it is launched. As with all lawyer advertising, ethics counsel will review websites upon request. However, ethics counsel will not review the entire contents of a website. Ethics counsel will respond to specific questions involving language or images to be included on a website. Lawyers should review the rules on advertising and limit inquiries to questionable language or images.

Disclaimer Placement

Most firms are either putting the disclaimer(s) in the footer or as a separate page. If a disclaimer is contextual in nature it should be close to the text on the same page. For instance, a disclaimer regarding contacting a firm electronically should be on the page with the contact form or email address, even if it is also in the footer or a separate disclaimer page. The rules specifically reference a contextually visible disclaimer required for certain testimonials on a law firm website.

Misleading Statements

NC RPC 7.1 states that lawyers should not make false or misleading communication about a lawyer or a lawyer’s services, including material misrepresentation of fact, omission of a fact, or make a statement that is likely to create unjustified expectations about results. Language that is self-laudatory is generally not permitted. Under NC RPC 7.1(a), law firm websites should be careful to avoid statements that compare the attorney’s service with the services of another lawyer or law firm, unless the comparison can be factually substantiated.

If your firm promotes the combined number of years of experience bear in mind that 2004 FEO 7 rules that “it is misleading to advertise the number of years of experience of the lawyers with a firm without indicating that it is the combined legal experience of all of the lawyers with the firm.”

Many law firms have “badges” on their websites for “Best Lawyers” or “Super Lawyers”. It might be worth considering how these may be perceived with reference to the duties for disclaimers outlined in 2018 FEO 8 (Advertising Inclusion In Self-Laudatory List Or Organization) and  2010 FEO 11 Letterhead Listing Membership in Organization With Self-Laudatory Name

Unauthorized Practice of Law

In one of the first NC opinions regarding Advertising on the Internet (NC RPC 239), it is suggested that to avoid misleading a website visitor from another jurisdiction, in NC a law firm website should list all jurisdictions in which the lawyers in a firm are licensed to practice law under NC RPC 5.5 (UPL). Similarly, the Web site must disclose the geographic location of the lawyer’s or law firm’s principal office.

If the firm website displays articles and blog posts containing legal information, it may also be a good idea to consider a statement or disclaimer such as: “This web site provides general information and is provided by XYZ Law Firm. Nothing on this site is intended as legal advice, and you should not consider it as such.” Additionally, adding a date stamp (Last Updated: 5/9/2019) to indicate when the content was last checked and verified is a good idea.

Testimonials

If you use client testimonials see 2012 FEO 1: “[… testimonials that discuss characteristics of a lawyer’s client service may be used in lawyer advertising without the use of a disclaimer. Testimonials that refer generally to results may be used so long as the testimonial is accompanied by an appropriate disclaimer. The reference to specific dollar amounts in client testimonials is prohibited.”  Some client endorsements or testimonials containing truthful information may be included in a website with the client’s consent. For example, “soft endorsements,” touting a lawyer’s responsiveness, diligence, and efficiency, are permissible without a disclaimer. However, “Hard testimonials, or testimonials that indicate a favorable result in a case, have the potential to mislead a potential client to form an unjustified expectation that the same results can be obtained on his or her behalf.” Read the full opinion to understand the difference between “hard” and “soft” testimonials and what triggers the need for a disclaimer. If you plan to use positive testimonials or reviews from third-party sites read NC State Bar ethics opinion 2018 FEO 7 on using services that collect client feedback and push positive reviews to the surface while hiding negative reviews.

Prior Results

An ethics opinion from 2000 (Advertising a Verdict Record 2000 FEO 1) suggests that if you list prior results you must list or make available verdicts both favorable and unfavorable. A more recent opinion (Including Information on Verdicts, Settlements and Memberships on a Website 2009 FEO 16) states: “we agree with the reasoning of the New York and Oklahoma bars and conclude that a website may include a case summary section showcasing successful verdicts and settlements if the section contains factually accurate information accompanied by an appropriate disclaimer. The disclaimer must be sufficiently tailored to address the information presented in the case summary section. The disclaimer must be displayed on the website in such a manner that it is reasonable to expect that anyone who reads the case summary section will also read the disclaimer. Depending on the information contained in the case summary section, an appropriate disclaimer should point out that the cases mentioned on the site are illustrative of the matters handled by the firm; that case results depend upon a variety of factors unique to each case; that not all results are provided; and that prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.”

Stock Photography and Pronouns

If a law firm has stock photography online, it could unintentionally mislead a client. For instance, a law firm website that has stock photography depicting of a group of young, diverse professionals on the homepage that may appear to represent the lawyers in the firm (lacking other pictures to suggest otherwise), when in fact that is not reflective of the makeup of the firm’s lawyers. The NC RPC addresses stock photographs in Rule 7.1 (a)(1) and Rule 7.1(b) as well as in the ethics opinion “Using Stock Photographs in Advertising 2010 FEO 9”. Similarly, in NC RPC 7.5 the use of “we” “our” and other plural pronouns as well as “and Associates” for a sole practitioner’s site could be misleading.

Domain Names

You don’t need to register the site URL with the North Carolina State Bar unless you use a “trade name” as your domain name. If the website domain name “is more than a minor variation of the official name of the firm, it must be registered with the State Bar [as a trade name] in accordance with NC RPC 7.5(a) ….” (2005 FEO 8). The domain name cannot be false or misleading, as with any other firm trade name.

According to 2005 FEO 14, the NC State Bar will permit the use of domain names, even when it is not apparent that the website is for a law firm. Examples of such approved domain names include “Druginjury.com” and “NCworkinjury.com.” The website home page, however, must clearly and unambiguously identify the site as belonging to a law firm or lawyer.

Contact Us

Does your firm website provide a way for potential clients to communicate with you via a form or email address?  Read ABA Formal Opinion 10-457 .  You should consider a plain language disclaimer that someone reads in advance of sending you information electronically from your website to reduce the potential for inadvertently creating a conflict of interest, creating a perceived attorney-client relationship or assuming the information disclosed is confidential. A best practice would be to have a click-through disclaimer so that the person needs to read the disclaimer and “agree” before sending the message.

Specialization

If you are going to use the word “specializing” or “specialty” or otherwise suggest expertise beyond the mention of practice areas you may need to certified as a specialist by the NC Board of Legal Specialization (NC RPC 43). NC RPC 239 prohibits communications implying or stating that a lawyer is a specialist unless the lawyer is certified as a specialist by the NC State Bar or a certifying organization approved by the NC State Bar. However, a lawyer who is not a certified specialist may indicate areas of concentration or interest on a Web site.

*Conclusion

Law firms working with website designers or building their own site should be aware of rules and required disclaimers that apply to their website. This post, updated 7/23/2019, is not a comprehensive list of law firm website requirements. It is not intended to be legal advice. NC Opinions/Rules are subject to change or update. To keep current, lawyers should check advertising/marketing/solicitation rules on the North Carolina State Bar webpage. The North Carolina State Bar publishes its “Journal” 4 times a year, and each issue includes 1) proposed opinions, and 2) the status of whether previously proposed opinions have been adopted or not. Additionally, the State Bar publishes amendments and proposed amendments to the Rules on their website.