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Bogus Accolades Could Result in Attorney Discipline

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on June 03, 2016 3:00 PM

Do you advertise yourself as a star lawyer, the best around? Even if your accolades are based on awards and honors, they could still land you in professional hot water if those comparisons aren't meaningful.

In response to many complaints filed over attorneys who advertised their accolades, the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee of Lawyer Advertising recently issued a warning to lawyers: refer to your honors "only when the basis for comparison can be verified" and the awarding group "has made adequate inquiry into the fitness" of awarded lawyers.

Praise Is Fine, If It's Bona Fide

Awards and honors describing attorneys as rising stars or the best in their practice area are common and many of them are meaningful, identifying truly impressive legal talents. But not all accolades are doled out with rigor. And if the basis for a comparison against other lawyers isn't bona fide, it might violate the rules of professional conduct.

In New Jersey and many other states, the particular rule is Rule 7.1, which governs communications concerning a lawyer's services. (New Jersey, like almost all state bars, had adopted the ABA's Model Rules of Professional Conduct.) Rule 7.1 states:

A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer's services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.

The official comment on the rule makes it clear that a "rating or certifying methodology must have included inquiry into the lawyer's qualifications and considered those qualifications in selecting the lawyer for inclusion."

The rule is nothing new, but the committee found it necessary, in the face of repeated consumer complaints, to issue attorneys a blunt reminder: rely on bogus awards in your advertisements and you could face discipline.

Is a Decade in Practice Good Enough?

So, what separates a bona fide accolade from a bogus one? The committee laid out some factors that rendered awards suspect. They were the payment of money for an award, membership in the organization that will issue the award, and participation on the organization's website in exchange for an award. Awards issued on the basis of the length of practice or a lack of formal disciplinary action are also questionable. "Lawyers may not advertise receipt of such awards unless, as a threshold matter, the conferring organization made adequate and individualized inquiry into the professional fitness of the lawyer," the committee wrote.

But that's not all. Even when the preliminary threshold has been met, lawyers most do more -- at least in New Jersey. When displaying such awards, in any form of communication, attorneys "must provide a description of the standard or methodology on which the award, honor, or accolade is based." That must be paired with the name of the comparing organization, and a disclaimer that the advertisement has not been approved by the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

That may not be as bad as it sounds, however. That language about methodology must be "in proximity" to the reference to the award, but it does not need to be included on every page of your website or in every email. A reference to a "convenient, publicly available source" is enough.

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