Law Firm Websites: Avoiding Misleading Information

Did you know that the American Bar Association has created rules and regulations that apply to law firm website information? It is a specific set of rules that governs what information may and may not be presented by a law firm or individual lawyer’s website online. This guidelines protect potential customers from receiving false or misleading information about a specific law firm.

The Facts

On law firm or individual lawyers’ websites, personal and background information is often provided for potential customers. This is all fine and good until information begins to be false or misleading. For instance, lawyers can present information regarding their professional and educational background, even informing website visitors of past cases is often permitted. However, if false information is given or important information is left out to make it misleading, a website is in violation of the American Bar Association’s rules. Can a website legally disclose the names of former clients and the outcomes of their cases? Yes and no. Because this information would be used as an advertising tool, a law firm website cannot put personal information like this on their website unless the past client gives formal permission to do so.

Advice versus Information

Many lawyers and law firms have blogs on their websites that give legal information to readers as a way to pull in prospective clients. It is possible, however, for this information to be misunderstood as legal advice. This could pose potential problems if a website visitor applied this learned information to their own case, ultimately resulting in a negative outcome. To avoid this, it is best that law firm websites include a disclaimer on the website that clarifies the nature of the information as general legal facts, not personal legal advice, to prevent this misunderstanding from occurring. By making this distinction, unnecessary confusion can be prevented.

Forming a Client-Lawyer Relationship

Interactive law websites must be careful not to create an unwanted client-lawyer relationship. Any website that encourages visitors to provide specific information regarding their case or other personal information could institute a formal discussion and inadvertently create a binding client-lawyer relationship.

This relationship creates a disclosure agreement that may present problems if a conflict of interest arises or if the ‘client’ ends up hiring another attorney. If a conflict of interest arises, matters can become complicated because the lawyer obviously cannot provide representation, but now holds important knowledge that cannot be disclosed. If the client decides to use a different attorney but has already disclosed important information to another through their website, this could pose problems for the client’s case.

For instance, many law firm websites have messenger services that begin communications with their visitors. Use caution with these types of services that could create a client-lawyer relationship if the user provides extensive personal and circumstantial information. It may be best to avoid these types of services and offer in-person initial consultations instead.

The Importance of Disclaimers

Because websites can often be misleading, it is important that law firms and lawyers take time to appropriately protect themselves from their own legal trouble with disclaimers. These disclaimers should be easily accessible to all of the website’s visitors and in a language that they can understand. It should inform website visitors that information on the website is true legal information, not to be misunderstood for advice, and that communication via the website could constitute a client-lawyer relationship.

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