Law Tips: Your Law Practice Online: Efficiently & Ethically, Part 1

“Attorneys who continue to stick their heads in the sand regarding technological developments and concepts could be in for a rude awakening. Those who fail to keep up with the times could very well inadvertently violate their ethical duties. These violations could include transgressions such as maintaining a weak password, neglecting to utilize a metadata scrubber or ignoring the internet as a discovery tool. The message is clear – mastering substantive law is not enough. All lawyers must acquire technological skill in order to continue serving clients efficiently AND ethically.”

I am excited to have Cynthia Sharp, The Sharper Lawyer, as a contributor for this Law Tips series on legal marketing and social media. She shares her extensive background as a business coach for lawyers. Later, I’ll provide you with a link to the CLE program wherein she provides a comprehensive, interesting look inside the  “Ethics of Legal Marketing & Law Practice in a Social Media Environment.” 

Cynthia’s challenge quoted above is for every legal professional today.  Her expertise affords a wide range of counsel on the current legal marketing atmosphere. Let’s begin our series with her review of the issues that might develop for any law firm’s website.

Law Firm Website Rules:

While most law firms have developed websites, many have not focused on potential ethical issues that may be lurking. Make sure that ALL information is current and comports with the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC). Many don’t consider that a visitor to the website may believe that an attorney-client relationship has been created through inquiries he or she posts on the site.

Formal Opinion 10-457 (see link below) was issued by the American Bar Association to provide formal guidance on lawyers’ use of websites. The opinion advises that lawyers are prohibited from including misleading information on websites, must be mindful of the expectations created by the website, and are required to carefully manage inquiries invited through the website.

In addition, websites that invite inquiries may create a prospective client-lawyer relationship under Rule 1.18 (protecting the confidentiality of the prospective attorney/client relationship). Lawyers who respond to website-initiated inquiries about legal services should consider the possibility that Rule 1.18 may apply. In addition, any limitations, conditions, or disclaimers of lawyer obligations will be effective only if reasonably understandable, properly placed on the site, and not misleading.

Recent Developments:

Ty Hyderally took on the task of restructuring the website of his 14-attorney law firm in 2005. His cousin who volunteered his website design services included the seal of the New Jersey Board of Attorney Certification on every page of the site. After two years, the emblem came to the attention of the Committee on Attorney Advertising. The unfortunate attorney was charged by the district ethics committee with violating RPC 8.4 (c) relating to conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation and Court Rule 1:39-6(b), involving the improper use of the emblem for a certified civil trial attorney.

While Hyderally testified before the Disciplinary Review Board that he had not noticed the seal although he had looked at the firm’s website, the ethics committee recommended a reprimand finding that even an unintentional use of the seal violates the RPC and rule because of his failure to review and monitor the content of the website. The ethics complaint was dismissed by the DRB based on the finding of a lack of clear and convincing evidence that Hyderally knowingly committed the ethics violations.

NJ CAA Opinion 31 prohibits the use of a judges picture on a law firm’s website “it is likely to create an unjustified expectation.” RPC 7.1 (a)(2).

On August 5, 2010, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility issued Formal Opinion 10-457- Lawyer Websites. It contains an excellent discussion of issues that must be considered by all law firms with websites (which should include all practitioners).

Law firm websites definitely require close monitoring. Have you reviewed and revamped yours lately? I hope these reminders from Ms. Sharp were helpful in avoiding some online law practice issues.

If you need to review the specific opinion and rules referenced above, you will find background at these websites:

Announcement from ABA Now on Formal Opinion 10-457

ABA Professional Responsibility Committee

Are you aware of the possible benefits of using social media? Cynthia Sharp’s relevant advice on where social media is taking the legal profession is enlightening. We will continue our series next week with her insights on the huge opportunities you might be missing in client development and retention.

Meanwhile, if you are looking for a comprehensive continuing legal education update, Ms Sharp’s session, “Ethics of Legal Marketing & Law Practice in a Social Media Environment” is available from ICLEF as a Video Replay near where you work or live by, Clicking Here.

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About our Law Tips Faculty Member:
Judge Martha Blood Wentworth received her law degree awarded cum laude (J.D. 1990) from Indiana University in Bloomington. Thereafter, she began her legal career as judicial law clerk to Judge Fisher at the Indiana Tax Court. Judge Wentworth was appointed by Governor Mitch Daniels to succeed the state’s first Tax Court judge, the Honorable Thomas G. Fisher, upon his retirement in December, 2010. For more than 12 years immediately prior to her appointment, she was a Director at Deloitte Tax LLP where she led Deloitte’s Indiana Multistate Tax Services. Prior to joining Deloitte, she practiced law with the Indianapolis firm Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman, PC.

About our Law Tips blogger:
Nancy Hurley, Law Tips blogger, has long-standing connections with Indiana lawyers. She was formerly a member of the ISBA and IBF staffs for over 30 years. Nancy’s latest lifestyle venture is with ICLEF. We plan to utilize her exceptional writing and interviewing skills while exploring how her Indiana-lawyer background fits with ICLEF’s needs. When she isn’t ferreting out new topics for Law Tips, her work can be found in our Speaker Spotlight blogs, postings on the ICLEF Facebook page, Twittering and other places her legal experience lends itself.

We appreciate you reading Law Tips.  If you would like to receive this weekly blog through a feed, click on the RSS link at the top of this page. Also, look for blog updates on Facebook and Twitter.  Your comments are welcome as Nancy continues to sift through the treasure trove of knowledge of our expert faculty to share with you on Law Tips.

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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