We do our best to go paperless, yet there’s one small piece of paper that seems to endure: the business card. Of course there are apps to exchange contact information, but I’ve yet to attend a conference where even the most tech-adept people were not trading old-fashioned, paper business cards.
“Dignified, unembellished” business cards have long been ethically permissible, even when other forms of advertising were not. But you can’t overlook the fact that state ethics rules often apply to this seemingly benign form of information exchange. Today’s business cards go well beyond name, address and telephone number to include an email address, website, Twitter name, law firm slogan and more. All of these could have ethical implications. Here are a few things you should know.
- Just the facts. Cards with only the basic name, address and phone number may be exempt from the ethics rules altogether in some states. For example, Kentucky’s definition of “advertising” exempts business cards with limited information. On the other hand, California specifically includes business cards in its ethics rules. Check the rules in your state to see if cards are covered.
- Content controls. Does your card include a slogan? What about a website or email address that includes a message, like “www.best-lawyer-in-texas”? These messages could be in violation of the ethics rules that prohibit false or misleading communications.
- Content controls II. Some states include “safe harbor” provisions. If the information on the card is limited to certain content set out in the rule, it is presumed to be in compliance with the rules. Again, check your state rules for the safe harbor provisions.
- Disclaimers. A few states require disclaimers under any circumstance and others only require them if they are triggered by other content. For example, if a card identifies a lawyer as a certified specialist, Illinois requires a disclaimer stating that the certification is not required to practice law in the state.
- Cite credentials with care. Indicating you are a specialist in a particular field can be a problem on business cards. In addition, in some states it is considered misleading for a former judge to make reference to that status on a card.
- What about cards for staff? Business cards for staff must clearly identify the positions of staff members and avoid implying that lay staff members are lawyers. Paralegals, legal assistants, investigators and others need to be properly designated as such on their business cards.
- It’s how you use it, too. Watch how you go about handing out cards, too. In many circumstances, cold calls are prohibited solicitations, and the use of a business card to advance that can lead to a disciplinary complaint.
The bottom line is that you need to be mindful about every detail of your law practice’s client development efforts. Basic information on the simplest business card is no exception.
Will Hornsby has served as Staff Counsel at the American Bar Association for the past 23 years. He writes and speaks extensively on issues of ethics, technology and client development. Follow him @willhornsby.
This material should not be construed as legal advice or the policy of the ABA or any of its constituent entities.
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