Your law firm just secured a settlement in an auto accident case. You're proud of the result you obtained for your client and want to announce it as soon as possible on your website. Can you do that without running into ethics trouble?
The short answer: Yes. However, before you put anything about the case online, read the formal ethics opinion that the North Carolina State Bar approved in July 2010.
The opinion, 2009 FEO 16, provides important guidance on how to place successful verdicts and settlements on your law firm's website without running afoul of the state's Rules of Professional Conduct — specifically Rule 7.1. According to the opinion, the case summary must be factually accurate and accompanied by an appropriate disclaimer.
Avoid Creating 'Unjustified Expectations'
People are increasingly going online to find a lawyer with the skill, experience and other qualities that they believe will meet their needs. When they visit a law firm's website, they want to learn as much as they can about the firm and its lawyers — and that may include knowing the types of cases they have handled in the past. The same can be said for other lawyers who are looking for co-counsel to assist in a particular case. The cases a firm has handled are often listed on a "Past Results" or "Verdicts & Settlements" section.
If that's something you'd like to do, however, you must comply with Rule 7.1. The rule prohibits lawyers from making any "false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer's services." According to Comment  to the rule, a communication about the lawyer or the firm's past results raises ethical problems if it is "presented so as to lead a reasonable person to form an unjustified expectation that the same results could be obtained for other clients in similar matters without reference to the specific factual and legal circumstances of each client's case."
The State Bar has addressed this issue in several ethics opinions. In 2001 FEO 1, the State Bar permitted the results to be published as long as the information was provided in a "certain context" which included, among other things, a listing of both favorable and unfavorable results. Realizing that that this requirement was burdensome and potentially discouraged lawyers from posting any information online, the State Bar altered its requirements in 2009 FEO 6. The opinion removed the unfavorable results requirement. Instead, it required firms to include "sufficient information," including the complexity of the matter, whether liability was contested or the opposing party was represented by counsel and whether the judgment was actually collected.
In July 2010, the State Bar withdrew 2009 FEO 6 and replaced it with 2009 FEO 16. It should be noted that the opinion overruled parts of 2001 FEO 1 to the extent that they were inconsistent. In particular, the State Bar no longer required a specific list of facts to appear in the case summary. Instead, the opinion merely required that any facts contained in the summary be accurate.
The newest opinion places greater emphasis on the use of a disclaimer. Under the opinion, the disclaimer must be "sufficiently tailored to address the information presented in the case summary section," and it must be "displayed on the website in such a manner that it is reasonable to expect that anyone who reads the case summary section will also read the disclaimer."
Additionally, the disclaimer must point out:
The cases listed are illustrative of matters handled by the firm;
Case results depend upon a variety of factors unique to each case; and
Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.
So, if you're interested in placing information about that auto accident settlement on your law firm's website, be sure to closely track 2009 FEO 16. Make sure the information is factually accurate and accompanied by a disclaimer that can be readily seen by visitors.
Guy Loranger is a licensed North Carolina attorney and Web content editor with Consultwebs.com, Inc., a provider of law firm Web marketing services. He can be reached by calling (800) 872-6590 or e-mailing email@example.com.