AVVO-type Services and the Georgia Lawyer

Have you claimed your profile? Was it correctly displayed in AVVO? Did you get the rating you think you deserved? What can you really do about that nasty review? We will attempt to work through this quandary for Georgia lawyers. As other jurisdictions have opined in various ways about the proper use and peril of services like AVVO, we felt the need to address it head on. So here goes.

Can a Georgia lawyer sign on and accept their rating? Well, of course, and many have done just that and leveraged higher ratings to boot. There are rumors that higher ratings are attained when lawyers accept and fill in their profiles, and not doing so may be at the heart of some of the concerns we hear about AVVO. Where did they get my information, and what if it’s totally wrong? We’ve heard more than once that a lawyer has never worked in a practice area their AVVO listing proclaims. Likewise, claiming to specialize in certain practice areas is not something to be taken lightly, but again there are some profiles that make these claims without the lawyer even knowing about it in some cases. So, does this now mean the lawyer can be in trouble with the State Bar?

We will talk more about “false and misleading” information later, but for starters, let’s address the use of online directory services like AVVO. As already mentioned, lawyers can use the service, and in most cases, claiming the profile may well be the way to go. Not doing so could indicate the lawyer is not in step with the times. Everyone’s online and most folks check out lawyers they’ve heard about online. Why not make sure your online presence is at its very best by making sure any information out there is correct? Once a profile has been accepted, then the lawyer must decide whether to enhance the profile through add-on services or by linking in additional content. Both tend to increase the ranking of the lawyer’s profile in searches performed using the directory. Again, there are no guarantees, but generally speaking the proactive approach to the profile listing seems to get noticed in the search algorithms used by the online services. So our advice to most lawyers is to get online and check your profile and claim it and add additional content if you are inclined to use the directory as a part of your online marketing campaign. You will just want to be sure you keep up with any content provided by the listing.

Lawyers who for whatever reason do not want to claim their profiles are likely to not be entirely pleased with their options. AVVO will not take down your listing, and we have mixed reports about being able to correct your practice areas without claiming your profile. However, if you have not been disciplined by a licensing bar, AVVO will accept a request that your “ratings not be displayed.” That strips down the profile, but practice areas, years of licensure, and evidently the ability of others to post reviews of you, remain displayed.

But what about unfavorable and inaccurate information? How’s that to be dealt with without skirting or crossing any ethical lines? There are no Georgia Supreme Court decisions or Formal Advisory Opinions addressing inaccurate information on websites like AVVO, but like a lawyer’s own website, you should consider it to be advertising and therefore subject to Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct (GRPC) Rules 7.1 (Communications concerning a Lawyer’s Services), 7.2 (Advertising) and 7.4 (Communication of Fields of Practice). There are a number of specific obligations and prohibitions in those rules, but the overarching requirement is that your communications not be false, fraudulent, deceptive or misleading. It seems unlikely that inaccurate information in an unclaimed AVVO profile would be prosecuted as an ethics violation, since the lawyer played no role in creating or publicizing it. Once you claim a profile, however, it seems obvious that you will be responsible for assuring that its content complies with the above GRPC rules. What to do about unfavorable reviews is a topic unto itself, which we will address next time.

Disclaimer:  Interpretations of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct (ethics rules) and their applicability in this blog post are informal opinions issued pursuant to Bar Rule 4-401.  They are the personal opinions of the Assistant General Counsel co-author, and are neither a defense to any complaint nor binding on the State Disciplinary Board, the Supreme Court of Georgia or the State Bar of Georgia.

-Natalie & Bill

Top Things for 2015 – That You Might Have Missed in 2014

Start 2015 with a review of all of your advertising materials to make sure that they are in compliance with the revised Rule 7.2 which became effective in March 2014.  The most common problem we’ve seen is the failure to include the lawyer or firm’s address in advertising.  Please be aware that the requirements of Rule 7.2 apply to all media—billboards, print ads, television and radio, websites, etc.  As there has been ample time for everyone to bring their advertising into compliance, please don’t make us have to tell you that yours needs changing.

Over 700 data breaches have occurred in 2014 according to the ID Theft Center.  See http://www.idtheftcenter.org/images/breach/DataBreachReports_2014.pdf   Of course, the numbers are most likely higher because of the probability that some breaches went undisclosed and/or unreported.  So, what does this have to do with Georgia lawyers?  Well, as we have been telling lawyers in CLEs for the past few years now, it is vitally important to protect your business and your Bar license by making sure you are not inadvertently disclosing confidential client information.  Data security and protection has been one of the top items being dealt with by members seeking resources from the Law Practice Management Program, and in 2015 we want to make sure you have what you need to protect yourself and your practice.  Contact the program for specific material and information on data security for your firm.

Cloud computing for lawyers is hot!  And even with the damper that sometimes comes with the knowledge about security concerns online (see above on data breaches), many firms are finding that the benefits outweigh the risks when it comes to using the power (and the space) of the Internet to store and manage documents (think Dropbox, Box, eVault, Google Drive, Mozy, Carbonite, and other online services for back up and document handling) from wherever there is Internet access.  The mobility revolution has made it possible to work from almost anywhere and the cloud delivering up solutions to get at a lawyer’s entire firm’s information and system seems to be catching on quickly.  Think about how many lawyers you know are looking for ways to minimize their computer and computer consulting costs.  The cloud services providers are delivering options that are getting more and more robust, and suitable for the daily work of law firms.  Yes, Virginia, this means you might be able to use that office back closet from something other than the server room now!

If you do decide to take advantage of the benefits of cloud storage, PLEASE also take advantage of LPM’s resources on security.  Also, it is a wise practice for you to inform your clients about how you will store their information.  Some may appreciate the convenience of access to their files, while others may strongly object.  If there is a breach, you will at least be able to show that your clients were aware of your use of cloud storage.

 

Happy Holidays from Tina and Natalie!

Listen Up! – Important Change to Advertising Rules

Did you realize that your advertising/marketing materials that were in compliance with the Rules of Professional Conduct on March 20, 2014, may have violated the rules as of March 21st? No? Then please take a little time to review the amended Rule 7.2 which was approved in an order issued by the Georgia Supreme Court on March 21, 2014. http://www.gabar.org/barrules/handbookdetail.cfm?what=rule&id=147

The changes to Rule 7.2 require additional disclosures for ads directed to potential clients in Georgia. Advertisements in all media must now include the name, telephone number and full office address of each lawyer or law firm who paid for the ad and takes full responsibility for it. If you use a referral service, you must ensure that the service discloses your office location, or registered bar address, when a referral is made.

If you will refer the majority of callers to other attorneys, you must disclose that fact and also comply with the provisions of Rule 7.3(c) regarding referral services. If you use a non-attorney spokesperson, portrayal of a lawyer by a non-lawyer, portrayal of a client by a non-client, or paid testimonials or endorsements, those must be disclosed.

If you advertise a fixed fee for specified legal services, you must have available to the public a written statement clearly describing the scope of each advertised service. Any ad that includes any representation resembling a legal pleading, notice, contract or other legal document must include a prominent disclosure that the document is an advertisement rather than a legal document.

If you placed ads before the changes became effective, you will have a reasonable time (which will vary based upon the type of ad) to come into compliance. For instance, billboards rented before the changes or ads in printed phonebooks generally cannot be immediately changed. However, renewals of all forms of advertising should be done in compliance with the amended Rule 7.2.

If you have questions about whether your ads comply with the amended Rule 7.2, you are welcome to call Tina Petrig at 404.527.8720.

What’s In a Name?

For a law firm or solo practice, much is in a name:  reputation, marketing, and ethical perils.  Ethical perils in a name?  Yes.  Firm and practice names must comply with Rule 7.5 of the Rules of Professional Conduct.  Names must also comply with Rule 7.1 which prohibits any misleading or deceptive communication. 

What is this Rule 7.5 of which you speak?

RULE 7.5 FIRM NAMES AND LETTERHEADS

Ethics & Discipline / Current Rules / Part IV (After January 1 / 2001) – Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct (also includes Disciplinary Proceedings and Advisory Opinion rules) / CHAPTER 1 GEORGIA RULES OF PROFESSIONAL CONDUCT AND ENFORCEMENT THEREOF

  1. A lawyer shall not use a firm name, letterhead or other professional designation that violates Rule 7.1.
  2. A law firm with offices in more than one jurisdiction may use the same name in each jurisdiction, but identification of the lawyers in an office of the firm shall indicate the jurisdictional limitations on those not licensed to practice in the jurisdiction where the office is located.
  3. The name of a lawyer holding public office shall not be used in the name of a law firm, or in communications on its behalf, during any substantial period in which the lawyer is not actively and regularly practicing with the firm.
  4. Lawyers may state or imply that they practice in a partnership or other organization only when that is the fact.
  5. A trade name may be used by a lawyer in private practice if:
    1. the trade name includes the name of at least one of the lawyers practicing under said name. A law firm name consisting solely of the name or names of deceased or retired members of the firm does not have to include the name of an active member of the firm; and
    2. the trade name does not imply a connection with a government entity, with a public or charitable legal services organization or any other organization, association or institution or entity, unless there is, in fact, a connection.

The maximum penalty for a violation of this Rule is a public reprimand.

Comment

[1] Firm names and letterheads are subject to the general requirement of all advertising that the communication must not be false, fraudulent, deceptive or misleading. Therefore, lawyers sharing office facilities, but who are not in fact partners, may not denominate themselves as, for example, “Smith and Jones,” for that title suggests partnership in the practice of law. Nor may a firm engage in practice in Georgia under more than one name. For example, a firm practicing as A, B and C may not set up a separate office called “ABC Legal Clinic.”

[2] Trade names may be used so long as the name includes the name of at least one or more of the lawyers actively practicing with the firm. Firm names consisting entirely of the names of deceased or retired partners have traditionally been permitted and have proven a useful means of identification. Sub-paragraph (e)(1) permits their continued use as an exception to the requirement that a firm name include the name of at least one active member.

 

Suppose you want to name your firm or practice something catchier than “J. Doe, LLC.”  You want something bold and (you admit only to yourself) grandiose.  “Southeastern Legal Empire.” Perfect.  But you get a call from the Bar informing you that  Rule 7.5(e)(1) requires that a trade name include the name of at least one lawyer in the firm.  Reluctantly, you go with “Doe’s Southeastern Legal Empire.”  That satisfies Rule 7.5(e)(1).  You still have a problem.  Rule 7.5(a) provides that you cannot use a firm name that violates Rule 7.1.  You are a solo practitioner;  “empire” is misleading.  You are only licensed in Georgia;  “southeastern” is misleading.  Well, perhaps “Doe’s Georgia Legal Services”.  No.  Rule 7.5(e)(2) says that your trade name cannot imply a connection with a charitable legal services organization.  What’s a new solo to do?  “Doe’s Legal Emporium”—that works.   “Doe’s Law Works”.  Fine.  “Doe’s Law Shop”; “Legal Matters:  Doe Law Firm”;  “Doe’s Lawsuit Factory.”    Or anything else that percolates in your imagination, contains your name, does not mislead, and otherwise complies with Rule 7.5. 

Many solo practitioners name their practices “Doe & Associates.”  This is sometimes with the good faith expectation of expansion in the not too distant future.  It is sometimes simply a matter of wanting to project an image of being bigger than you are.  It is misleading in its suggestion that the practice consists of more than one lawyer.  Non-attorney staff are not “associates.”  A similar problem arises when lawyers who are simply sharing space use a joint name that indicates that they are in partnership.  If you don’t want to be responsible for your office-mate’s cases and potential liability, don’t use a name that suggests that you are. 

Your firm name can be imaginative, creative and even undignified if you wish.  It can project the image that you choose.  But it must comply with Rule 7.5.  If in doubt, call the ethics hotline to ask about the name that you are considering.  The maximum penalty for a violation of Rule 7.5 is a public reprimand, and while a public reprimand would give you visibility, it’s probably not the marketing edge that you want.  The maximum penalty for a violation of Rule 7.1 is disbarment. 

 – Tina