Whether you’re just starting a business or working to grow an established firm, advertising is a central pillar of a strong marketing strategy. Advertising can help you bring in new clients, establish yourself as a local household name, and increase opportunities for other marketing opportunities.

But when you’re advertising for your law firm, there are several regulations you’ll need to follow.

Below, we’ll dive into the American Bar Association’s rules for lawyer advertising, as well as how you can stay in compliance while still delivering a strong message.

Can Lawyers Advertise?

Before we dive into the rules that govern lawyer advertising, let’s talk about if you’re allowed to advertise in the first place. You are allowed to advertise — so long as you comply with lawyer ethics rules.

The American Bar Association has issued the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to govern lawyer advertising. Specifically, Rules 7.1 – 7.3 address how law firms may promote their legal services. All states have adopted these rules in some shape or form. 

If you fail to comply with these rules, you could face professional penalties from your state bar, including suspensions and/or disbarment. Here are the rules you should be aware of.

1. Don’t Make False or Misleading Communications

The main reason for the ethics rules regarding advertising is to prevent lawyers and attorneys from making false or misleading advertisements that could induce clients to hire them based on misrepresentations.

The main ethics rule you should be aware of is Rule 7.1. This rule prohibits lawyers from making “false or misleading” communications about “the lawyer or their services.”

The rule defines a communication as false or misleading if “it contains a material misrepresentation representation of fact or law . . . necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading. 

Many of the advertising rules discussed in this article go back to this one rule. If your advertisement is false or misleading, it’s prohibited under the ethics rules. 

What You Can Do

To state Rule 7.1 in the positive, your advertisements must be truthful. You can promote your firm using any communication or advertising so long as it is truthful (and not violative of other ethics rules). 

2. Don’t Claim to Be an Expert

Rule 7.2(c) prohibits lawyers from “stating or implying” that they are experts or certified specialists without proper certification from a state bar or an accredited certifying organization.

Even if you have a breadth of experience in your field, you can’t advertise yourself as an expert or specialist. Why? Because it could be misleading (back to Rule 7.1).

If you are certified as a specialist or expert by an organization that has been accredited by the American Bar Association or an appropriate authority in your state, you have to include the name of that organization in your advertisements. 

What You Can Do

You can advertise your experience by discussing how many years you’ve been practicing law, the successful results you’ve achieved for your clients, and any awards you’ve won. You can also say that you focus on a certain practice area or case type (e.g., truck accidents). 

Incidentally, the comments to Rule 7.2 suggest that you can say that you are a “specialist” or “specialize in” — as opposed to being a certified specialist or expert — in a particular field based on experience, specialized training, or education.

However, such statements are subject to the “false and misleading” standard of Rule 7.1. If your state bar flags these statements, you may have the burden to prove that you are a specialist given your training, experience, and education. 

3. Don’t Exaggerate

You should not exaggerate, lie, or bend the truth in your advertising — because such statements are misleading. This rule prohibits making outright false statements or claims in your advertisements (as mentioned in Rule 7.1).

But this rule can also apply to subtler statements that you may not be able to prove. The comments to Rule 7.1 admonishes lawyers not to make an “unsubstantiated comparison of the lawyer’s or law firm’s services with those of other lawyers or law firms.”

Such statements are misleading because they may lead a client to believe the comparison can be substantiated. 

To this end, you can’t claim to be:

  • The “best” or “better” than other firms
  • The “cheapest” or “cheaper” than other lawyers

You may feel that your firm is the best or that you offer cheaper fees than any of your competitors, but those statements can be hard to prove if challenged. 

What You Can Do

Instead of making value statements about your fees, try highlighting that you have flexible payment options or that you work on a contingency fee basis. In other words, discuss your fee structures rather than make comparisons with other law firms.

Additionally, rather than claiming to be “the best law firm” in your area, you can say that you’re “top-rated” or “experienced” (assuming these things are true).

Never omit important qualifiers from your advertising; there should be no fine print needed to understand your ad messaging.

4. Be Careful with Client Testimonials

Client testimonials are among the most effective ways to advertise for your law firm. They can help build trust in potential clients and give them a sense of what it’s like to work with your law firm. However, your right to use and solicit them is not unfettered. 

ABA Rule 7.2(b) outlines strict rules concerning how you may obtain and use client testimonials. You may not “compensate, give, or promise anything of value” to a person for recommending your services. To put it plainly, you may not pay a client or give them gifts to induce them to provide you with a testimonial.

Likewise, you can only use testimonials that represent a typical outcome in your cases. You can advertise standout outcomes on your website, but you should be careful of using any testimonials from those clients describing that specific outcome and what compensation or resolution you got for them.

Such a testimonial could be false or misleading and lead future clients to expect the same or similar result — regardless of the facts and circumstances of their case.

What Can You Do

You can ask clients to give you testimonials, ratings, or reviews. Nothing in the ethics rules prevents you from doing so.

However, it may be a good idea to go through some of the guidelines for their testimonial before you solicit them. Your clients can always talk about the experience they had with you and the general result you got in their case (i.e., don’t mention specific awards or results).

They can always discuss why they chose to hire you and the client service you provided throughout their case.

You can also give “nominal gifts” as an expression of appreciation to a client for recommending your services — so long as they are not intended or expected to compensate a client for the recommendation. The comments to Rule 7.2 describe nominal gifts as “token items as might be given for holidays, or other ordinary social hospitality.”

5. Never Directly Solicit Clients

ABA Rule 7.3 prohibits lawyers from “solicit[ing] professional employment by live person-to-person contact” when the solicitation is motivated by the pecuniary gain of the lawyer or law firm. 

The rule prohibits “in-person, face-to-face, live telephone, and other real-time visual or auditory person-to-person communications” between a lawyer and a specific person the lawyer knows needs legal services.

In other words, this means a lawyer cannot contact a potential client unprompted, through direct advertising or solicitation, to secure a case from them. However, such contact does not include “chat rooms, text messages, or other written communications” that the person can easily ignore.

This rule guards against lawyers, who are trained advocates, privately “importuning” a person in need of legal services at a time where the person may already feel overwhelmed by their legal needs. It prevents individuals from having encounters with lawyers at a time when they “may find it difficult to fully evaluate all available alternatives.”

The comments to the rules caution that such situations are “fraught with the possibility of undue influence, intimidation, and overreaching. 

What You Can Do

You can market to a general audience, broadcasting advertisements on television, radio, social media, billboards, and so on. You can “solicit professional employment by live person-to-person contact” if the contact is with a:

  • Lawyer
  • A person who has a personal, family, or professional relationship with you or your firm
  • A person who routinely uses your type of legal services for business purposes

In these cases, the potential for undue influence and abuse is much lower. And, of course, if you receive a request for information from a potential client, you’re allowed to respond to them and give information about your services.

6. Use Disclaimers When Needed

If you plan to advertise your services on your website or run general audience advertisements, you may need to include some disclaimers. Rule 7.1 suggests that disclaimers and qualifying language can prevent the public from developing “unjustified expectations” about your legal services.

Such qualifying language can also help you avoid having the state bar finding that advertisements are “false or misleading.”

There are many situations that may require disclaimers, including:

  • When you advertise the case results of other clients – You may need a disclaimer stating that past results do not guarantee future outcomes. 
  • If you have information about a practice area on your website but do not handle such cases, you may need to add a disclaimer.
  • If you hire actors to read your ad copy or represent hypothetical clients, you’ll need to disclose that the individuals are actors.

If you’re unsure if your disclaimer meets requirements or whether your advertisement requires a disclaimer, you may be able to submit your ad to the ethics department of your state bar. If it doesn’t align with ethics standards, they’ll let you know.

7. Know What Information to Include (and Exclude)

There’s some information you may need to keep out of the advertisements you run, as well as some you may need to specifically include. 

You can’t use fake legal documents or fake lawyers/law firms in your advertising (could be false or misleading). Additionally, Rule 7.1 (as well as Rule 1.6 on confidentiality) restricts you from using information from cases that are still pending (again could be false or misleading).

However, you may be able to use testimonials from clients with pending cases if you have written permission from the client.

Rule 7.2(d) requires you to include some specific identifying information about your firm in any communication or advertisement you make about the firm. Specifically, you must include “the name and contact information of at least one lawyer or law firm responsible for its content.” 

Contact information can include a (1) website address, (2) a telephone number, (3) an email address, or (4) a physical address.

8. Determine If You Need an Office Address

In some states, you might need to have an office address if you plan to run advertisements. This will need to be a physical location, not just a virtual address, and it may need to meet certain regulations. If you plan to advertise in more than one area, you may need to have offices in each of those locations.

For instance, in Florida, ethics Rule 4-7.12(a)(2) requires all law firms to have a real office location in the same city, town, or county of the advertised legal services. Additionally, under some ethics rules, you may need to post a physical office address when advertising (see the previous section of this article). 

9. Research the Regulations for Trade Names

Depending on which state you practice in, you may not be permitted to use a trade name in your advertising. A trade name, or “doing business as” (DBA), is the public pseudonym that your business goes by, and it may not necessarily match your registered business name.

For instance, your registered business name may include all your partners’ names (e.g., Smith & Smith & Smith, P.A.), while your trade name might include your practice area and be geared more toward marketing (e.gSmith Personal Injury Lawyers).

But before you start brainstorming catchy trade names, it’s important to see if you can use them in your advertising. Some bar associations (including New York) require you to use the name your business is registered under in all your advertising.

Be sure to research these regulations before you launch your advertising campaigns.

10. Determine How Long to Keep Copies

Even once your advertisement is live, you may need to keep a copy of it for a certain period of time. Some jurisdictions (such as New York) require you to keep a copy of all ads for at least three years after their initial release. Others only require you to keep copies for a year after publication.

If your law firm website includes advertisements, you may have to preserve copies of your content on a routine basis – every thirty days, for instance. Be sure to look into what your bar association requires before you start cleaning out those files.

Make Your Advertising Work Smarter for You

Advertising is a terrific way to get your name in front of more potential clients and begin to grow a brand reputation. However, the ABA has very specific regulations governing lawyer advertising. In addition to familiarizing yourself with the overall ABA rules, be sure to do your homework on your state bar association’s regulations.

If you’d like to make your advertising work smarter for you, LawRank can help. We provide legal marketing that works, including SEO, PPC, web design, and more. Contact us today to start getting honesty, transparency, and results from your marketing agency.