ABA Provides Guidance on Websites

From the October 2010 Attorney E-Newsletter of The Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

The Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility of the American Bar Association has published Formal Opinion 10-457, which provides valuable guidance to lawyers and law firms who make use of websites in the public presentation of their practices. The opinion addresses content issues such as providing information about the firm or practice, publishing information about the law, and handling visitor inquiries. It also provides advice on warnings or cautionary statements intended to limit or clarify the practice’s obligations to visitors.

Some of the high points of the opinion’s coverage include:

  • A website may offer biographical and professional information about the lawyers and practice, but such statements that are “communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services” are subject to the requirements of Rules 7.1, 8.4(c) (generally), and 4.1(a) (when representing clients).
  • Information that identifies clients may be posted, but the clients should provide informed consent within the requirements of Rules 1.6 (current clients) and 1.9 (former clients).
  • Lawyers and firms may address legal issues on the website. Such communications should be general information rather than specific advice. Qualifying statements may be necessary to make sure that such information is not construed as legal advice.
  • Lawyers who respond to questions or inquiries from website visitors should be particularly aware of the provisions of Rule 1.18 regarding prospective clients. The opinion addresses this topic at length.
  • Finally, warnings or cautionary statements on a lawyer’s website can be designed to and may effectively limit, condition, or disclaim a lawyer’s obligation to a website reader. The opinion makes a number of observations on assuring that such statements are effective.

The opinion’s coverage of these issues is much more detailed than this brief summary. Lawyers and law firms who publish websites would benefit from reviewing the opinion and checking their own sites along the lines it suggests.

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