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    Ethics: Developing an Ethical Firm Web Site

    A Web site can be an excellent marketing tool for law firms of all sizes - when it's set up and used correctly. Here are some tips about site appearance, functionality, and content to help make your site effective and ethical. For ethics advice, call (608) 250-6168 or (800) 444-9404, ext. 6168.

    Dean Dietrich

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 81, No. 2, February 2008


    Developing an Ethical Firm Web Site

    A Web site can be an excellent marketing tool for law firms of all sizes - when it's set up and used correctly. Here are some tips about site appearance, functionality, and content to help make your site effective and ethical. For ethics advice, call (608) 250-6168 or (800) 444-9404, ext. 6168.


    by Dean R. Dietrich


    I am developing a Web site for my law firm. What things should I be careful about?


    The development of a Web site for communication about your firm's services and personnel is an excellent way to market your law firm. This is particularly true for sole practitioners and small law firms that need to compete with other law firms on a regional or statewide basis. Nancy Roberts Linder, a consultant who helps lawyers develop Web sites, offers the following suggestions for lawyers considering the development of a firm Web site.

DietrichDean R. Dietrich, Marquette 1977, of Ruder Ware, Wausau, is chair of the State Bar Professional Ethics Committee.

    Design considerations. Selecting the right person to create or redesign your Web site is crucial to obtaining an effective product. Choose a designer who has worked with law firms before. Ask your colleagues in law firms that have a Web site who they would recommend, or do a Google search. Review your Web site contract carefully to make sure the agreement specifies that you own the text (copy), the graphics, and the design (layout). Ask the designer to verify that images and photos used (if they are not photos that you have taken) are from free resources and are not copyrighted or do not require a licensing fee. Also, consider how you are going to add to and update the information on your site. Many firms require their Web site designers to create a site that law firm staff members can easily maintain. Lastly, when choosing a company to host your Web site, look for one that provides tracking reports that detail visitors and page views (what visitors are looking at) - this information will help you assess what pages on your site are of most interest.

    Content considerations. Content is king when it comes to law firm Web sites. If your goal is to obtain exposure for your firm and attract potential clients, you will want to include relevant examples of your experience and background on your practice areas. The key is to go beyond generalities and focus on credibility-building information such as detailed attorney biographies that showcase specific experience handling legal matters. You should also include case, counseling, and transaction summaries for representative matters. It is important that this information highlight how you help clients achieve their goals and solve their problems while also ensuring confidentiality of client identities.

    Ethical issues. Ethical issues also arise when developing a law firm Web site. The advertising rules (SCR 20:7.1 through 7.4) apply to a law firm Web site. Generally speaking, a law firm Web page is considered to be the same as a yellow pages advertisement or other marketing tool used by the lawyer. Electronic communication opportunities through the Web site create additional concerns, because the Web site normally is considered an invitation for persons to communicate with the law firm or lawyers in the law firm, and such communications may be subject to confidentiality and conflicts of interest concerns.

    Web sites need to comply with the Supreme Court Rules on advertising. SCR 20:7.1 provides that lawyer advertising must not be false or misleading. For example, testimonials on the Web page must indicate if they are paid testimonials. Individuals in pictures of clients must be identified as actors if they are not actual clients. In addition, lawyers must be careful when identifying the nature and scope of services provided to clients to avoid any impression that a lawyer is certified as a specialist in particular areas of the law unless the lawyer has been properly certified by an appropriate organization approved by the American Bar Association, according to SCR 20:7.03. Lawyers also must be careful that they clearly identify the states in which they are licensed to practice to avoid confusion over the right to represent clients in other states, which would constitute the unauthorized practice of law under SCR 20:5.5.

    Concerns about electronic communications. One of the primary reasons to have a Web site is to assist clients to communicate with lawyers or the law firm by email. Receiving a communication from a potential client through the Web site could create situations in which the potential client gives important information to the attorney that the potential client believes will be kept confidential. The Web site should include a disclaimer stating that sending an email communication to the law firm or a particular attorney does not automatically create an attorney-client relationship and that the information contained in the email is not automatically protected under SCR 20:1.6, the confidentiality rule. Conflicts of interest also can arise if a lawyer receives information by email communication and that information is of such detail or nature that the lawyer acquires sufficient information to be conflicted out of representing a current client. These are reasons for developing a protective system, such as a "click-through" warning that requires the person sending the email to agree that the mere sending of an email does not create an attorney-client relationship.

    SCR 20:1.18, the new rule on "prospective clients," identifies the duty of confidentiality and loyalty that a lawyer may owe to a prospective client even though the lawyer decides not to represent the individual. This rule describes mechanisms that allow a lawyer to be screened from representing a current client because of information gained while communicating with a prospective client; however, proper notice must be given to the prospective client and screening mechanisms must be put in place to segregate that attorney from participating in the representation on behalf of another client.

    Tips to Develop Web Pages

    Listed below are suggestions for lawyers when creating and using Web sites: Make sure to identify the states of licensure for each attorney in the law firm.

    • Use a "click-through" or "click-wrap around" mechanism to require a prospective client communicating with the law firm or lawyer by email to agree that information communicated by email is not protected as confidential and the email communication does not create an attorney-client relationship.
    • Ensure that descriptions of legal services provided by the lawyer or law firm are not false or misleading by making sure that they accurately and succinctly describe the types of services provided by the lawyer or law firm.
    • If you are going to describe cases that you have handled, either obtain permission from the client to use the client's name or describe the representation in a generic fashion so that the client cannot be identified in any way.
    • If you are going to use testimonials from a client, you must indicate if the testimonial has been paid for in any fashion.
    • If you are using pictures of individuals who are identified as clients, you must clearly indicate if the individual is an actor portraying a client.
    • When describing areas of practice, you may indicate that your practice is focused in particular areas or that you limit your practice to particular areas of the law, but be careful to avoid any impression that you are a certified specialist recognized by an organization unless you have satisfied the certification requirements of that organization.
    • You must be careful when describing case outcomes so that you do not create an unreasonable expectation of success in a future representation.

    Lawyers have had great success using law firm Web sites to market their law practices. Following common sense guidelines will help you comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct.