As Director of Legal Education with Attorney Credits I spend quite a bit of time cruising through cyberspace.  Whether it’s looking up attorney information on the Cal Bar website or researching a new potential topic, I have become something of an ‘Internet rat’ in the respect that I have gotten quite good at finding very useful, credible legal information online about continuing legal education and other pertinent legal topics.

I am also amazed at the amount of pure crap that’s out there – especially from lawyers and legal sites (I even ran into an Asshat lawyers blog, no kidding!).  I guess at the top of the list would be PI websites and blogs.  This is something that social media guru Kevin O’Keefe at LexBlog rails on quite frequently because many PI blogs aren’t blogs at all – they are thinly veiled direct solicitations to accident victims and their families.

While attorneys have finally begun to foray into social media and Cyberspace, and legal websites have improved dramatically over the last few years, there are still a few times a week where I think out loud to myself, “What was this guy thinking?” Like this week for example when I came across this attorney website when I was looking for some information.  This Florida attorney has a billboard size picture of himself on his website, why would you ever post a picture of yourself anywhere, let alone on your business website?  A small headshot to personalize your site is great – but that is just taking it to the extreme.

Spend about an hour looking at law firm and lawyer websites and you will soon realize that it runs the gamut out there – from finely crafted websites to the “billboard” websites of the solo practitioners with everything in between.  And just because you are a large mega-firm doesn’t mean you are going to have a great website, I have seen plenty of websites from big law firms who simply got ripped off for the money they paid.

It’s also very important to remain ethical when crafting your website.  From the pictures that you choose to including links and online submission forms for potential clients online, there are a number of ethical landmines that can take you from simply being tasteless to being downright unethical.  This also poses a number of problems for state regulators as well. Florida and New York updated their state ethics codes to address online advertising – much to the chagrin of the FTC and many lawyers who practice in those jurisdictions. Texas lawyers beware – you are next!  The Texas Bar has got into the act and they will be the next State Bar to over-regulate causing confusion and headache amongst attorneys who want to advertise online.

One of the main problems recently addressed by New York and Florida was the content of legal websites and the use of testimonials, nicknames and monikers.  Many attorneys in these states called the new regulations draconian and felt that they went way to far in regulating online legal speech and trampled on their First Amendment rights.  However, legal advertising must be truthful and regulators in these states felt that nicknames, monikers, and guarantees posted on some legal websites were somehow untruthful and false.  In some states you aren’t even allowed to post your past results from previous cases because this ‘misleading’ tactic creates an unjustified exception in the mind of the potential legal consumer.

Aside from the content that you post on your site there are also two other main issues. First, maintaining a legal website can get you an unauthorized practice of law claim. If you are a licensed attorney in New York, you can’t stop legal consumers from California, Texas, Illinois or any other state from accessing your website and think that you are offering them legal service.  I even read a few months ago that the Virginia Bar was sending letters to California attorneys informing them to change their website or risk fines and sanctions.  Here, it is key to include the appropriate language on your website that geographically limits your practice and the clients that you wish to serve.  Listing where you are licensed to practice and that you only wish to serve clients in these jurisdictions.

Second, a legal website could possible get you disqualified from representing clients.  Many firms include email submission forms for potential clients to submit information about their possible claim.  One could imagine a scenario where a firm was already retained to represent one part and the adverse party could easily submit information about the same claim through the law firm website.  Just about all law firm websites try to disclaim the confidential nature of the information – but this just doesn’t fly with courts and regulators.

Especially with the recent advent of Twitter, Facebook and social media, attorneys may forget about the importance of their websites – but you cannot because it is the bedrock of your online reputation.  Even if it is just a ‘billboard’ site, this is how clients, colleagues, and peers are going to get their first impression of you – and it’s also how you can run into trouble with your state regulatory regime.

If you need a little help revamping your website, Attorney Credits has some great resources for you. First, we worked with Jose Rosa of WebJuris in November to put a great course together on selecting the right web development firm that fits with you and your firm.  We also have a really great 3-hour course on law, ethics, and technology that focuses on advertising and legal websites.  And if you just don’t have the time to sit through a one hour or three hour course, then you might want to check out one of our most popular MicroSeminars on the legal ethics of attorney websites.