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Your Website White Lies Could Violate Attorney Ethics Rules

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on October 13, 2016 12:10 PM

The internet has always been a place to experiment with identity, and maybe to fudge the truth a bit. Think of the Facebook teens claiming to be experts on international politics, for example, or the divorcee looking for love on a dating website, with pictures that are a decade or so old.

That desire to embellish can sneak in to lawyer websites, too, and suddenly you're no longer a solo practitioner, you're "Lawyer and Associates;" you don't just have a family law practice, you're a leading expert in divorce. But this kind of puffery could be an ethics violation.

On the Internet, No One Knows You're a Dog

Let's start with a fairly common example, a website for a solo attorney that uses "and associates" in its name. As Anna Massoglia recently reminded us on Lawyerist, the use of "and associates" is generally verboten if you don't have an actual partnership agreement in place.

That means your shared office, paralegals, or occasional use of contract attorneys aren't good enough to justify adding an "and associates" to your practice name or website.

After all, the ABA's Model Rule 7.1 forbids making a misleading communication about your services, while Model Rule 7.5 specifically warns against misleading names. Some states have gone further, making such prohibitions more explicit. As Massoglia writes:

Some jurisdictions have adopted a revised version of Model Rule 7.2 which explicitly spells out that a sole practitioner should not use any "language implying a group practice," noting "and associates" as an example of objectionable language-even if the lawyer plans to employ associates at a later date.

You're Good Enough as You Are

It's not just "and associates" that can get you in trouble, either. Massoglia notes that some state bars say that even the term "law group" should be used only by practices with multiple lawyers. We'd say the same argument could be made for attorneys who work at "law offices," plural, but really only have one physical location.

You should also be cautious about claiming expertise in a particular area of law. Several state bars, including Ohio, Virginia, and Tennessee ban superlatives like "expert" and "highly qualified."

So when it comes to puffing up your online presence, try being yourself instead. If you're good enough, if you're smart enough, doggone it, people will like you -- whether you've got three law offices or one home-based virtual practice.

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