'It's toasted': lawyer websites and the rules of ethics.: so what can you say and do on your website? A new ABA ethics opinion provides some long-sought guidance.

Author:Erger, Karen
 
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Even if you don't watch Mad Men--and you should; it's the best thing on TV, period--you've certainly heard about it by now. The Emmy-award winning show (OK, I'll stop trying to sell you on it) takes place in the advertising industry in the early 1960s.

What would Don Draper have done with the Internet?

In one episode, Don Draper meets with a client, Lucky Strike cigarettes, who needs a new ad campaign in the wake of the FDA's decision that cigarettes can no longer claim they are "safe." Searching for inspiration, Don asks the client how Lucky Strike cigarettes are made. As the client explains the manufacturing process, Don seizes upon one step toasting the tobacco.

Triumphant, he proposes the slogan "It's Toasted." The client objects: "But everybody else's tobacco is toasted!" Don replies, "No. Everybody else's tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike's is toasted."

Unlike the characters on Mad Men, lawyers who use websites to market their services are bound by the Rules of Professional Conduct. Obviously, lawyers are forbidden by Rule 7.1 of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct from making false or misleading communications about themselves or their services, on the Internet or anywhere else. Misleading claims of the "It's Toasted" ilk are forbidden.

But lawyer websites present other, more difficult problems. What about the website visitor who treats the general legal information on the law firm's website as legal advice applicable to her particular situation? And if the visitor contacts the firm through the website, is that a discussion with a "prospective client" as defined by Rule 1.18, requiring the firm to keep the visitor's confidences and disqualifying it from representing adverse interests?

Recently, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility shed some light on these questions in Formal Opinion 10-457, "Lawyer Websites," available at http://www.abanet.org/ cpr/pdfs/10-457.pdf. Let's review the helpful advice provided by this new opinion.

Keep website content accurate and current

With respect to website content regarding the lawyer or law firm, the opinion confirms that it may not be false or misleading. While that should come as no surprise, the opinion reminds us that website content must be updated regularly to keep it from becoming misleading.

So, for example, if a lawyer leaves your firm, her profile should be taken off your website within a reasonable time. The opinion also...

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