Advertising and Social Media Ethics for Personal Injury Lawyers
Like other lawyers, personal injury attorneys have websites, maintain social media accounts and advertise in print media and on billboards and bus stop benches.
But personal injury lawyers must be particularly careful not to run afoul of ethics rules designed to protect accident victims from aggressive ambulance chasers.
The ABA Model Rules
Under Rules 7.1 and 7.2 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Responsibility, lawyers are permitted to advertise their services, so long as the advertisements are not false or misleading. The Model Rules have been adopted in whole or in part by most states.
Model Rule 7.3 governs lawyer solicitations, or communications directed to a particular person. It was enacted to protect accident victims from being pressured into hiring a lawyer (though it applies to all types of potential clients). Lawyers cannot solicit clients by “in person, live telephone or real time electronic contact” unless the person being contacted is a lawyer or has a family, close personal or prior professional relationship with the lawyer.
Written, recorded or electronic solicitations of people who are known to be in need of legal services must be clearly labeled as attorney advertising, unless the person being contacted is another lawyer, a relative, close personal friend or has a prior relationship with the lawyer. In many states, the advertising must include information designed to help potential clients understand their rights.
The Rules and Technology
The Model Rules seem pretty clear in a world of telephones and mail delivery, but they leave gray areas when you take modern technology into account.
For example, can you send a text message to an accident victim? Or is texting prohibited because its telephone or real-time electronic contact? The Ohio Supreme Court’s ethics panel and the Florida Bar have both concluded that texts are allowed because they are more like emails, which are permitted under state ethics rules as long as they also comply with attorney advertising regulations and telemarketing laws.
What about a Facebook friend who posts about his car accident? Do Facebook friends qualify as people with whom a lawyer has a close personal relationship, allowing the lawyer to contact the “friend” by phone? Future ethics decisions may have to confront these sorts of issues.
Social media profiles and posts are generally regarded as attorney advertising, and some states have revised their rules or handed down ethics opinions making it clear that attorney advertising rules apply to social media just as much as to billboards. Social media is especially tricky because lawyers can potentially be held responsible for content posted by others. So if a client gushes on Facebook that the lawyer “got me a huge settlement for my car accident,” the lawyer could be violating ethics rules that prohibit promising a particular result. It’s a good practice to include an attorney advertising notice on all social media profiles and web pages.
Personal injury lawyers also must be careful who they “friend” on Facebook or connect with on “LinkedIn.” In particular, LinkedIn has a feature that allows users to send connection requests to everyone in their address book. While this seems convenient, it can violate solicitation rules if the connection request is sent to someone that the lawyer knows is in need of legal services and it doesn’t include the proper disclaimer. Other potential ethics pitfalls of friend and connection requests include communicating with an opposing party already represented by counsel and communicating with judges.
Before using social media and advertising to promote your personal injury practice, make sure you know your state’s ethics rules regarding solicitations and attorney advertising. If you are unsure, contact your state bar for further guidance.