A recent ethics opinion found that it was a violation of a lawyer’s code of professional conduct to use another lawyer’s name on the internet to attract website visitors and potential clients. This is a practice shady lawyers have used for decades, but this is the first opinion I’ve seen to directly address this topic.
The practice of law is more competitive now than ever, and the legal landscape for lawyers has changed considerably in the last 30+ years. To avoid the draft, law school attendance skyrocketed in the 1970s. This lead to what is now a complete glut of lawyers. Additionally, large law firms are laying off lawyers in droves, while at the same time, more law schools are churning out new lawyers in increasingly large numbers.
As a result marginally qualified lawyers are holding themselves out as experts in areas such as DUI defense, and since they have not done what’s necessary to actually establish their own expertise in their own right, they try to ride on the coat-tails of others.
One way to do this is to pay Google or Bing for search terms including the names of other, more established lawyers. Another way is to “embed” the competing lawyer’s name into the web site. Either way, the goal is to “game” the search by a potential client with the hope of being hired.
These all too common practices are completely unethical. According to the opinion of North Carolina State Bar Ethics Committee it is a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct for a lawyer to select another lawyer’s name as a keyword for use in an Internet search engine company’s search-based advertising program.
Here’s how this might work: Attorney A participates in an Internet search engine company’s search-based advertising program (such as Google or Bing). The program allows advertisers to select specific words or phrases that should trigger their advertisements.
As such, one of the keywords that might be selected by Attorney A for use in the search-based advertising program would be the name of Attorney B, a competing lawyer in Attorney A’s town with a similar practice. Then, attorney A’s keyword advertisement would cause a link to his website to be displayed on the search engine’s search results page any time an Internet user searched for the term “Attorney B” using the search engine. Attorney A’s advertisement would then appear to the side of or above the unpaid search results, in an area designated for “ads” or “sponsored links.”
Trouble is, this is completely unethical. As held by the North Carolina State Bar Ethics Committee:
It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Rule 8.4(c). Dishonest conduct includes conduct that shows a lack of fairness or straightforwardness. The intentional purchase of the recognition associated with one lawyer’s name to direct consumers to a competing lawyer’s website is neither fair nor straightforward. Therefore, it is a violation of Rule 8.4(c) for a lawyer to select another lawyer’s name to be used in his own keyword advertising.
Michigan’s Rule 8.4(b) is nearly identical in stating:
(b) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, or violation of the criminal law, where such conduct reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer.
Thus, the North Carolina opinion would likely be followed if not adopted by the Michigan State Bar Ethics Committee. The same is true of nearly any state because the majority of states use the ABAs model code of professional ethics as the guide, and it is unethical for all lawyers to be dishonest.