Wisconsin Lawyer: Ethics Link to Business Websites? Yes, With Caution:

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    Link to Business Websites? Yes, With Caution

    Lawyers can provide links to other businesses on their firm websites but must make sure to provide appropriate notice regarding ownership of those businesses and application of the lawyer-client relationship protections.

    Dean R. Dietrich

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    Question

    I am hoping to add several links to my preferred providers of services on my law firm web page to help my clients. Do I have to take any precautions?

    Answer

    Lawyers do have to be cautious if they are adding a link for another business onto the lawyer or firm website. Concerns will depend on whether the other business is owned by the lawyer or is owned by a third party.

    Dean R. Dietrichcom ddietrich ruderware Dean R. Dietrich, Marquette 1977, of Ruder Ware, Wausau, is chair of the State Bar Professional Ethics Committee.

    If the business is owned by a third party, the lawyer could include a link to that business on the lawyer website so long as the information regarding the other business is not false or misleading. It would be best for the lawyer to put a disclaimer on the web page to clarify that the law firm does not maintain the linked site of the other business and that the law firm does not sponsor or approve the information that is contained on the linked site.

    If the lawyer is referring clients to this other business under an agreement that the outside business will refer clients to the lawyer, the lawyer must comply with SCR 20:7.2(b)(4). This provision allows a lawyer to refer clients to another business with which the lawyer has an agreement for that business to refer clients to the lawyer, provided the reciprocal referral arrangement is not exclusive and the client is informed of the existence and nature of the agreement. Lawyers must be careful when entering into these referral arrangements to ensure they are exercising independent judgment as to when it is in the client’s best interest to receive services from this third-party business. It would be best to reference this referral arrangement on the lawyer’s website.

    This provision allows a lawyer to refer clients to another business with which the lawyer has an agreement for that business to refer clients to the lawyer, provided the reciprocal referral arrangement is not exclusive and the client is informed of the existence and nature of the agreement.

    If the link on the law firm web page is to a law-related service that is owned by the lawyer, the requirements of SCR 20:5.8 would apply. Under that rule, the lawyer must clarify that the law-related services referenced in the linked business are not legal services and that the protections of the lawyer-client relationship do not apply. If that notice is given, the lawyer would not need to monitor the content of the business’s web page because the lawyer advertising rules would not apply to that advertising web page; however, the lawyer must disclose that the lawyer is an owner of the law-related business.

    In addition, the lawyer must be careful that the linking of another business’s web page as part of the lawyer website does not create confusion or result in the provision of false or misleading information to a prospective client. It is always best to pay close attention to the content of the linked web page to avoid that confusion and the potential for a misrepresentation in violation of the lawyer advertising rules.

    Need Ethics Advice?

    As a State Bar member, you have access to informal guidance and help in resolving questions regarding Wisconsin’s Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys.

    Ethics Hotline: To informally discuss an ethics question, contact State Bar ethics counselors org tpierce wisbar Timothy Pierce or org akaiser wisbar Aviva Kaiser. They can be reached at (608) 229-2017 or (800) 254-9154, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m to 4 p.m.