Ethics Counsel on www.OKbar.org

Does Your Web Site Comply with the Rules?

By Gina Hendryx, OBA Ethics Counsel

In the constant endeavor to get and keep clients, lawyers are continuously exploring novel means of advertising and revisiting proven methods of the past. Television has always been one of the most powerful media for getting information to the public. However, the costs are prohibitive for most practitioners. Likewise, telephone directory advertising costs have continued to rise. During the last decade, the reliance upon electronic media has grown exponentially due, in part, to its relatively low cost compared with other options and the large number of potential “clients” reached.

In direct proportion to this growth is the number of lawyers advertising on the Internet. Oklahoma’s professional standards governing lawyer advertising do not explicitly address Web sites and Internet advertising. However, lawyer and law firm Web sites have been consistently held to be a form of advertising and therefore must conform to the requirements governing advertising found in the Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct (ORPC 7.1 through 7.5).

In Oklahoma, these Web sites should include the name and address of the lawyer responsible for the content, comply with the restrictions on claims of specialization and not contain false or misleading statements about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. Generally, Web sites are considered similar to a yellow pages ad and therefore subject to general rules governing advertising (ORPC 7.1 and 7.2) and not a communication directed to a specific recipient (ORPC 7.3).

A domain name is a Web site address that links the user to the firm’s advertisement. An example would be www.smithandjoneslawoffices.com. Other states that have reviewed Web site addresses have concluded that the domain name need not include the name of the lawyer or law firm. Oklahoma also recognizes that a law firm may use a trade name as a firm designation. A trade name may be used if it does not imply a connection with a government agency or with a public or charitable legal services organization. The trade name must also not be false or misleading (ORPC 7.5).

The Arizona Bar Association’s ethics committee addressed domain names in Arizona Ethics Op. 2001-05. The committee advised that a private, for-profit firm may not include in its domain name language implying an exclusive affiliation with a bar association or governmental entity, nor may it use the “.org”suffix.

While a firm may use a domain name that does not include the name of its lawyers, the Web site should clearly include the name and office address of one lawyer responsible for its content (ORPC 7.2). New York City Ethics Op. 2003-01 advises that the domain name should not imply special expertise or otherwise mislead. The opinion gives the following examples of domain names that may violate the state’s ethics rules: bigverdict.com, bigjudgment.com, bestlawyer.com, greatattorney.com and personalinjuryexpert.com.

The ABA amended the Model Rules in 2002 to apply to all types of electronic communications. The OBA’s Rules of Professional Conduct Committee has recommended changes to our current rules consistent with the Model Rules. However, the mode of advertising does not change the requirement that all advertising be truthful and not mislead the consumer.

Questions about the rules, changes or schedule of review? Feel free to contact Ms. Hendryx at the e-mail address listed above or (405) 416-7083.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- Apr.15, 2006 -- Vol. 77; No.12