Language to Keep Your Website Ethically Sound
You’ve spent thousands of dollars building and refining your law firm website, in hopes it attracts lots of new clients. But have you thought through the various legal issues surrounding the use of websites to market a practice? If not, you could be setting yourself up for ethics violation headaches.
While not all-inclusive, these four tips for statements and disclaimers can help you get on the right path.
1. Legal advice vs. legal information. A great tool for attorney marketing is a website full of blog posts, articles and other content that deals directly with the specific practice areas your firm focuses on. Content like this often comes close to being legal advice, however, and the line between information and advice can be very blurry. The best way to address this is to make a clear — and prominent — statement on your website that any information presented is general in nature and should not be construed as legal advice. Without such a statement, visitors may actually think the content on your site is legal advice, and then take action based on that advice.
2. State-required attorney advertising disclaimers. Most states have rules covering any type of attorney advertising, including websites. Those rules range from requiring specific statements, such as “This Website Is Attorney Advertising,” to requiring the name and physical address of at least one firm attorney be listed on the site. Make sure you are familiar with — and follow — the rules of all states in which you practice.
3. Cautionary statements. Ideally, your website will attract lots of visitors and create leads for lots of potential clients. But since websites are often designed to create a close connection, and drive visitors to fill out an inquiry form or send an email, you must be clear that you still control the formation of an attorney-client relationship (and the various client privileges that flow from such a relationship). To avoid misunderstandings, you should make cautionary statements that make clear that: (a) no attorney-client relationship has been created; (b) visitors should not provide any confidential information or have the expectation that information provided will be kept confidential; and (c) you will not in any way be prevented from representing an adverse party simply by virtue of a visitor contacting you.
4. Clear and prominent disclosure. Let’s assume you’ve followed the three previous tips and drafted some great disclaimers for your site. What now? Most likely your web developer will just drop links to those disclaimers into the site’s footer and call it a day. Not a good idea! Simply dropping a link in the footer to your legal terms and disclaimers is not enough. They need to stick out: It must be obvious to site visitors that use of the website is indeed subject to those legal terms — something we lawyers refer to as “constructive notice.” So, make sure you prominently display links to the legal terms and disclaimers. And, for example, if you allow visitors to submit a contact form, you could provide some mechanism whereby visitors must take some action to accept the legal terms and disclaimers.
Finally, be sure to keep good records of when and what legal terms and disclaimers you’ve published on your website, just in case your firm is compelled to prove that it did indeed effectively deliver terms and disclaimers.
Brian Powers is an Indianapolis-based lawyer and entrepreneur. Brian has practiced Internet law for nearly a decade, working with start-ups and companies that transact business online. He recently launched PactSafe, a cloud-based solution that manages, tracks, deploys and enforces digital legal agreements. Brian tweets @PactSafe.