Given the ubiquity of advertising for lawyers on TV, billboards, radio, and everywhere else, you might be surprised to learn that it’s only been legal for attorneys to advertise since the late 1970s. In Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, the Supreme Court ruled that restrictions on advertisements for legal services violated the First Amendment, but understandably said that, “Advertising that is false, deceptive, or misleading, of course, is subject to restraint.” With the arrival of the Internet, an entirely new avenue of advertising has opened for law firms, but with it comes a new set of challenges. How can you keep your online ads from running afoul of the law?
What’s an Ad?
When you think of online advertising your head probably fills with visions of pop-ups, flashing banner ads, and things you skip after five seconds to look at funny cat videos. In reality, online advertising is defined much more broadly from a legal perspective. Your web site, for example, is considered an advertisement subject to any number of laws in a lot of states. The same can be true of activity on social media. It’s safest to assume that everything you do online with your name or the name of your firm could be considered an advertisement.
One of the most basic rules for online attorney advertising is one that applies to all advertising: don’t lie. It seems obvious, but trying to write eye-catching headlines for your online ads might lead to some temptation to bend the rules a little. Use the same rules when writing an online ad that you’d use when making any other kind of ad for your law services. Misleading claims about the nature, cost, or results of your services could easily land you in court. This includes using trade or fictitious names in advertising or unverifiable claims comparing yourself to other attorneys.
Every state has its own set of regulations for attorney advertising, and you should familiarize yourself with them before placing any advertisements online. For example, Texas requires lawyers to submit an application for all online advertising including banner ads, websites, and videos when the advertising is launched. That means you’ll have to pay the state bar $75 and file paperwork before you’re even allowed to put a website online. If you’re seeking pre-approval of the content of the advertisement in Texas, you have to file 30 days in advance of the first posting of an ad, video, or website. Other states have different rules on the matter, so a few minutes of research could save you a lot of long term hassle.
When you place an ad on a bus bench or in a local newspaper in Boston, it’s fairly easy to avoid running afoul of the advertising laws in California. Online, things might get a little more tricky. To avoid confusion, you should feature your practice’s address prominently on your web site and to be clear about the bar admissions for any members of your firm. You should also make sure to check the geographical targeting settings for your online ads. Making a concerted effort to keep your ad from appearing in unintended places will not only keep things legal, it will also save you money you would have spent on poorly targeted traffic.
As with all legal matters, there are a lot of nuances involved with the ethics and laws concerning online advertising. These basic guidelines should put you on the right path, but you should always check with your State Bar before you put an advertisement online.