Fla. Bar OKs Client Testimonials on Law Firm

Daily Business Review, February 22, 2007.

After nearly four years of debate, The Florida Bar board of governors has tentatively approved a proposed rule on law firm Web sites that would let lawyers publish client testimonials and claims about their past successes.

The proposed rule would largely free law firm Web sites from the state’s restrictive rules governing lawyer advertising in such media as television, radio, direct mail and Yellow Pages. But lawyer Web sites still would have to comply with general Bar rules regarding truthfulness and lack of deception.

The proposal still must be passed by the board of governors in a second reading and approved by the Florida Supreme Court.

Under the proposed rule approved late last month, the inside pages of law firm Web sites — but not the home page — could include testimonials, references to past results and statements characterizing the quality of the services, as long as the statements are truthful, not misleading and come with disclaimers. The disclaimers must say that past results do not guarantee a future success.

Supreme Court rules do not allow law firms to provide such information to potential clients unless the potential clients explicitly request it. That restriction would remain in effect for lawyer advertising in other media.

Law firm home pages still would have to comply with the Bar’s current advertising rules. But unlike other forms of media, Web sites would not have to be submitted for the Bar’s approval.

Under a previous board of governors’ proposal, law firms would have had to install blocking technology to prevent consumers from directly accessing through search engines the inside Web pages containing testimonials and statements of success. But the board, facing objections that this would be difficult and costly for small firms, dumped that idea.

The focus on revamping rules regulating Web sites comes as lawyers realize that the Internet has become the go-to research tool for today’s consumers. Instead of turning to the Yellow Pages, the public increasingly uses online search engines and other Internet tools to find needed goods and services. This creates a slew of novel questions about whether law firm marketing information on a Web site should be considered information requested by consumers under Bar advertising rules.

The final proposal was suggested by members of the board’s Miami-Dade County delegation. “We’re trying to balance the public’s right and opportunity to find out about lawyers, but at the same time protecting the public from things that are not true on the Web sites,” said Dennis Kainen, a Miami criminal defense attorney and a Bar governor.

Consumers surfing the Web, he said, are hungry for more information than what is provided in a newspaper ad. “The person doing a Google search is seeking a particular type of attorney in a particular field in a particular [geographical] area,”Kainen said. “The consumer is looking for testimonials and looking for the experience of a lawyer.”

Bar President-elect Frank Angones, a Miami lawyer, disagreed with the proposal during the board of governors debate. According to the Florida Bar News, which reported on the discussion, Angones argued that attorneys should not be able to write qualitative statements about their work on any Web site pages because these are prohibited in other forms of advertising. Angones did not return call for comment.

Florida, which has some of the nation’s toughest rules on lawyer advertising, became one of the first states to establish Web site rules for lawyers in 1999. But the issue of Web regulation long has been debated by the Bar board of governors. Several task forces were created to examine advertising rules for the Internet.

An initial task force recommended last year that Web sites be exempted from those rules on the grounds that Web sites provide information on request. The Bar board rejected that recommendation because board members wanted Web sites to be more closely regulated.

At the December meeting, the board of governors reached an impasse over whether information found through a Google search constitutes requested information.

Some board members, led by Miami-Dade lawyers Steven Chaykin and Ervin Gonzalez, argued that too many restrictions on law firm Web sites could give a competitive advantage to larger firms that could afford to build better Web sites. Another concern was that regulating Florida lawyers’ Web sites too carefully would give an advantage to out-of-state attorneys, who do not have to follow such rules.

Chaykin and Gonzalez could not be reached for comment.

Kainen said some of the indecision at the December meeting stemmed from lack of knowledge on the technological issues. He said these questions were eased by a Bar information technology person who explained the technological aspects to the debate.

Bar President Henry M. Coxe III of Jacksonville, Fla., said he’s pleased with the board’s proposed rule. “The new rule was a product of determination that any changes in the rule would not subject solo practitioners or small firms with high expenses in order to comply,” Coxe said.

The Bar is accepting comments from members before the proposal goes to a second reading before the board of governors in March. At that point, the Board will submit the proposal to the Supreme Court.