It might not be surprising that an ethical issue is being discussed and deliberated in the Florida law community. However, it might seem unusual to some that the issue surrounds LinkedIn, the popular social network for professionals, including in this case, lawyers and their firms. Even those who have never visited the website are undoubtedly familiar with the barrage of e-mails inviting them to do so.
This is serious business. It all starts with a new set of rules that was adopted by the Florida Supreme Court in May of 2013, which governed the use of internet marketing by Florida lawyers. The rules were intended to discourage deceptive, manipulative, misleading information, limiting online marketing content to “objectively verifiable” results, characterizations, and testimonials. While Florida lawyers have always worked with relatively strict advertising limitations, this was the first time the restrictions were extended to their websites.
In an attempt to comply with the new rules, law firm Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley PA asked the bar to advise them on which statements from their online presence met the “objectively verifiable” requirement. They were not satisfied with the response they received.
In addition to criticizing some of Searcy Denney’s own statements, the bar also noted that the firms LinkedIn page violated parts of the new rules. According to the bar, Searcy Denney should not list practice areas on LinkedIn because, after being submitted to the website, they are automatically listed under a heading of “Specialties”. Technically, only lawyers certified in a specific legal area can claim it as a specialty, but LinkedIn does not recognize this. LinkedIn profiles also invite other users to submit reviews of services that are posted without oversight that would make sure they meet the “objectively verifiable” benchmark.
Now law firms like Searcy Denney are arguing that they should not be held accountable for the way in which LinkedIn sets up their online profiles. They claim that the rules, as they stand, make it too hard to maintain an online presence, and nearly impossible to produce websites, blogs, and social media that fall within the imposed guidelines. On December 11, Searcy Denney filed suit against the Florida Bar in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.
Members of the bar maintain that this is an issue that must be dealt with no matter who is at fault. Allowing the LinkedIn pages to remain could lead to a slippery slope of unethical online marketing for lawyers and their firms. They have encouraged LinkedIn to cooperate and change the way they organize the profiles.
The case is surely a sign of things to come. It brings to the forefront, once again, the effect that the internet is having on our lives, especially in the way we do business and practice our profession. At Stok Folk & Kon, we eagerly await further developments to see how this case will apply to our role as a law firm in Miami, Florida.