Beyond the Yellow Pages
California Lawyer

Beyond the Yellow Pages

by Kristen Marquis

January 2013

You've been Googled! You know it's true, in part because you've done some Googling yourself. Whether it was looking up opposing counsel, your client, or your new next-door neighbor, you've used the powers and reach of the Internet to find out a little more about someone.

And you can be sure your potential clients will do the same when they need an attorney.

Broadly speaking, attorneys have been slow to adapt to social media and building an online presence. Many are stuck in the Yellow Pages Age, or at least have the (very mistaken) impression that they don't need to worry about building their identity online. They assume that word of mouth has propelled their practice thus far and will continue to do so. However, if your potential client can't research you online, they move on. Studies indicate that 90 percent of Americans consult the Internet before choosing a company or professional to do business with. Having no digital presence, then, can be nearly as damaging as having negative reviews posted online (and those reviews are out there, whether you know it or not).

Why Social Media?
A high percentage of firm lawyers use social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, and many find that blogging and social networking help bring in new business. What's more, a majority of people on LinkedIn, the world's largest professional networking site, are between 34 and 65 years old. Regardless of your age, a good portion of your potential referral network likely falls into this demographic, and LinkedIn has an excellent rubric in place for giving and getting referrals.

Ethics
Those of you with a healthy fear of the State Bar's powers appreciate the tenuous relationship between advertising, soliciting, and just being a great attorney. Like print and television advertising before it, the Internet has its ethical limits for lawyers. A side note about running or rerunning that TV ad: According to Nielsen, DVR (digital video recording) is increasing and certain demographics, including traditional targets for mass tort TV ads, are watching less television in general. Whether we admit it or not, the face of legal business development is shifting from traditional media to new media.

The State Bar of California has begun the process of updating its rules relating to lawyers' online presence. A proposed ethics opinion by its standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct, to be published early this year, clearly states that a California attorney's postings to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media sites are bound by the same rules that govern more traditional forms of advertising. To be precise, an attorney "may post information about her practice on social media websites, but those postings may be subject to compliance with [Rules of Professional Conduct of the State Bar of California] 1-400 if their content can be considered to be 'concerning the availability for professional employment.' "

Dos and Don'ts
With rule 1-400 in mind, attorneys cannot present themselves (online or off) as "certified specialists" unless they have been so designated by the State Bar. This brings up the tricky issue of "skills and expertise" found on LinkedIn. When completing a profile, every member is asked to identify areas of expertise, in which other members can endorse their work. But although a civil litigator may focus on, or be "an expert in," personal injury practice, he or she should avoid noting any such thing on LinkedIn, absent a State Bar accreditation.

Another point to bear in mind is that attorneys cannot guarantee or predict the outcome of a representation. While this may seem obvious, often it is not. Testimonials on websites and social media status updates such as "Won a $1M verdict! Who wants to be next?!" or "Another great victory! Tell your friends to call me or check out my website!" seem harmless, but they would almost certainly be considered a communication as defined by rule 1-400(A) and subject to the stringent standards it imposes.

Disclaimers
A disclaimer at the bottom of a law firm's blog page can provide protection against the State Bar and litigious clients. The information on your website must still be educational, informational, useful, and accurate, so keeping that in mind, here's an example of a very thorough disclaimer:

Disclaimer: The information contained in this weblog (blog) is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. No recipients of content from this site, clients or otherwise, should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any content included in the site without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from an attorney licensed in the recipient's state. The content of this weblog (blog) contains general information and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts, or settlements. The [ABC Law Firm] expressly disclaims all liability in respect to actions taken or not taken based on any or all of the contents of this weblog (blog).

Online Testimonials
The standards set forth in rule 1-400 require an express disclaimer if the attorney publishes testimonials. To help you keep in compliance, at the bottom of a testimonials page (for LinkedIn, websites, and social networks) include a disclaimer that the "facts and circumstances of your case may differ from the matters in which results and testimonials have been provided."

Potential exceptions to this rule include lawyer review sites, such as Avvo [www.avvo.com] and Yelp [www.yelp.com]. On those sites, individuals can write unsolicited reviews about your practice (anonymously or not). By the way, if you think you don't have an Avvo profile, you should think again. Avvo, which receives 3.5 million visitors each month, regularly combs through State Bar websites to pull information about attorneys - that information may or may not be correct depending on how often you update your State Bar profile.

Building Relationships
Social networking is about building relationships, and like other relationships, time and emotional intelligence are key. Still, many don't understand how connecting with an executive at an insurance company on LinkedIn can bring an insurance defense attorney new business. Or how tweeting your latest article on the effects of driving under the influence can lead to a gig as a legal commentator.

As much as we may lament the decline of communicating in person or on the phone, connecting via social media is crucial for business development.

A final caveat: If you farm out your social networking to a contractor (and many law firms do), be sure to hire a professional, ideally an attorney, who understands the severe consequences of an ethics violation and the necessity of keeping you in line with the State Bar.

Attorney Kristen Marquis's Los Angeles-based company, WebPresence, Esq., assists lawyers in building their online presence.

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