For many law firms, a legal website will be the number one source of new clients. With this in mind, lawyers should absolutely make sure their websites present the law firm’s services in a flattering and accessible manner.
Lawyers must also ensure that their websites contain legally appropriate content. Sites must comply with attorney ethics rules regarding what should be and what shouldn’t be on a law firm’s website. Those guidelines are established by The American Bar Association and then supplemented by State Bar Associations regulations.
The rules for law firm websites vary state to state. They are often confusing and enforcement doesn’t always come as swiftly as it should (if ever). However, this doesn’t mean lawyers should ignore law firm website regulations. Lawyers also shouldn’t leave these concerns of legality to an SEO company or website administrator.
These are just a few of the rules lawyers and content creators should follow in order to stay out of trouble with the ABA.
Rules of Professional Conduct:
The American Bar Association ABA sets forth guidelines to make sure all law firms comply with a basic set of directives for website content. State Bar Associations add their own level of requirements for legal sites.
Most state bars see websites for law firms as a form of advertisement, engendering even stricter rules. Some guidelines require that all legal content be submitted to state agencies for approval.
There is a small list of states that have much higher standards for legal copy than others. California, New York, and Florida are among those states that have stricter guidelines. This sounds intimidating, but It’s worth noting that in California we’ve never witnessed the bar association enforce its own rules regarding websites.
The national and state restrictions can affect the way a law firm can boast specializations in certain fields of law. The language used to explain how a lawyer is paid falls under more scrutiny in some places. The use of testimonials is closely regulated in some states. There are different rules on when disclaimers must be in place. The size of the fonts used in the dissemination of important information is sometimes governed.
The ABA and the Bars Associations for individual states have good reasons for these restrictions. They are usually meant to protect potential clients and place every law firm on equal footing. Always stay current on your state’s regulations, even when you’ve trusted a website designer or content creator to build and maintain your site.
Contact Information and Office Address on Your Website:
In most states, lawyers are required to post contact information. This should include a physical address and a phone number.
A location disclosure disclaimer is usually necessary for your law firm’s site. It’s a requirement to provide a real address for your office. This guideline may not apply to smaller firms, depending on what state you practice in.
Law firms are usually within the legal parameters as long as they’ve posted a contact page with an address and phone number.
Prohibited Language and Misleading Statements:
Lawyers and content creators can get into trouble when they use advertising language and terms that other industries or professions use. Saying you are the “number one ice cream shop” in Milwaukee won’t get you in trouble. But comparing yourself to competing law firms by saying you’re number one isn’t allowed.
The ABA’s Rule 7.1 describes your duty on your law firm’s website when you describe your services:
“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.”
These and other claims are usually not allowed on any law firm’s website:
- Don’t boast that your law firm is the “top firm,” “the cheapest,” or “the best in the area.”
- Don’t imply that you can guarantee a case win or settlement money. Posting examples of past case success may be viewed as guaranteeing similar outcomes. It’s safer to include the statements like… “past success does not guarantee similar results.”
- Don’t say that you specialize in a certain field of law or say that you’re an expert in a certain field. If you have special certification, post the proof clearly on your site. This certification must be from a bar association-accredited organization.
- Don’t claim you are board certified unless you have been awarded this designation.
- Don’t present your years of experience or the number of clients you’ve served inaccurately.
- Don’t use language that implies that victims visiting your site must contact a lawyer. Visitors should never feel the law compels them to seek representation.
Images, Pictures, and Video Law Firm Website Compliance:
Images, pictures, and videos make for a more visually stimulating read on your law firm’s website. But there are rules to what sorts of media you should include on your website. Lawyers must also be careful not to misrepresent their law firms.
- Avoid using images of actors and models that could be mistaken for attorneys that work at your law firm or mistaken for clients. Many states insist you post disclaimers on your photos.
- Beware of free images. Free stock photos on websites where photographers upload their pictures can create problems. There are no guarantees photographers are submitting their own work. They may pull photos from someone else’s licensed images. You may receive a letter asking you to stop using an image.
- Royalty-free images may not be free. Sometimes a one-time payment is required. Credit must be given to the photographer if you use these images.
- Some states govern the use of video and animated footage. Check with your local bar association about the restrictions on posting videos.
Does your state allow the use of stock lawyer photos?
Disclaimer Requirements for Bar Associations
Your law firm’s website should be outfitted with numerous legal disclaimers. These disclaimers help visitors to your page understand what they can and can’t receive from the website.
- Limits of legal information disclaimer – The most common legal disclaimer is the one that all firm sites require… “Information found on this website is legal information and not legal advice.” This disclaimer may only be needed on one page, but some state bar associations require it to appear on all website pages and on social media posts.
- Attorney-client relationship disclaimer – Visitors to your website should not be able to mistakenly think that sending you an email or clicking on your site means that you are now their lawyer. It must remain clear that no attorney-client relationship exists until a contract is signed.
- Jurisdiction disclaimer – Attorneys must be clear about the clients they are certified to help and the locations where they are legally allowed to represent clients.
Law Firm Website Filing and Registration:
Some states make it easy to comply with restrictions placed on home pages for law firms. That’s because they won’t let you upload your website until it’s been approved. A few states require law firms to submit their websites to the state bar or a state agency for approval.
The inspection is required before a website is posted or as it goes live. In some states, only a home page is checked. In other states, a law firm must print out its entire website for scrutiny.
It’s critical to find out what your state mandates before you post, especially if you have offices in more than one state.
Remember that even if you’ve hired an SEO company and website administrator, your obligations aren’t over. You are still responsible for the content on your website.
It’s up to you to monitor your site, keep it current, and keep it within the boundaries of the law in your state. When a state bar ethics board spots a violation, it’ll be you they question, not your content creation team.
Additional State Requirements:
As if website rules for law firms weren’t complex enough, many states have unique requirements that could leave you in hot water on your next website update if you’re not careful.
Several states including Wisconsin and Georgia require websites to feature disclaimers when endorsements are used from paid spokespersons or from non-clients.
Both Kentucky and Texas require that websites for solo practices be registered with the local bar association. Some states require websites to get re-registered if major changes are ever made.
Additional Considerations When Creating a Website for Your Law Firm
These are a few other requirements that your law firm’s website could be subject to. Check them over carefully:
- Terms and conditions – This section describes how your client will interact with your law firm. The “legalese” goes over payment policies and the scope of the work the lawyer will provide. The termination of services is also covered.
- Privacy statement – You’ll need to make clear what your firm does with the information provided by potential clients and potential clients. Also, make sure to discuss how that personal information is protected and how long it’s retained.
- Links – Language that specifies you aren’t responsible for third-party content that receives a link on your site. This includes any link to another law firm’s or service’s site. Your firm bears no liability for any computer viruses that arise from your law firm’s site or a connecting site.
- Referrals – Make it clear that just because you are linking to other companies and services, it doesn’t constitute a referral or endorsement of those websites.
- ADA – The important notice that your law firm conforms to The Americans with Disabilities Act. Your firm does not discriminate against people with disabilities, including in the areas of employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and access to state and local government programs and services.
Making Your Law Firm’s Website ABA Compliant:
While some states don’t get around to enforcing their restrictions on websites for law firms, a violation could send you or a colleague before your bar association’s ethics board. Fines and other penalties are also possible.
Some law firms leave this worry to their SEO companies or website administrators, but be aware that an inexperienced SEO team may not be cognizant of these important guidelines. Talking over these concerns with an experienced SEO team that serves law firms across the country is the best way to make sure your website doesn’t get pulled off the internet.
If you need help creating content or building a new website that follows the rules of your state’s bar association, contact us. We create content for law firms daily.
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