Rules 7.1 through 7.4 of the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct prescribe marketing rules for Ohio lawyers. Generally, lawyers are prohibited from making false or misleading claims, including material misrepresentations or statements that could be significant to clients. While self-laudatory statements are permissible, the key is to avoid “unverifiable” claims. Within these parameters and applicable Ohio Supreme Court Advisory Opinions, there are some very good ways in which lawyers can market themselves professionally.
Legal directories are a great place to reach potential clients. Rule 7.2 and Ohio S.Ct. Ops. 88-4 and 99-3 permit lawyers to advertise in print and online directories. The most reputable online directory is martindale.com, where potential clients can search for lawyers and view ratings. Other high-profile directories include Justia.com, HG.org, and Lawyers.com. Lawyers should also claim their profiles on Avvo.com, a site where prior clients can leave reviews for potential clients to read. The same is true for Yelp.com, a crowd-sourcing site where anyone can post a review about anyone, including lawyers.
Email and texting are efficient and inexpensive marketing tools, as long as lawyers follow a few basic rules. While Rule 7.2 permits solicitation of business via electronic communications, and Ohio S.Ct. Op. 2013-2 permits texting, O.R.C. §2307.64 places limits on spam communications. Harsh penalties apply of $100 per email up to a maximum of $50,000. In addition, the CAN-Spam Act in 15 U.S.C. §7701 et seq. authorizes penalties of up to $16,000 for each violation.
Although it may seem obvious, lawyers who do not already have websites should create them. Statistics show that potential clients search for lawyers on the Internet like they search for everything else online. Rule 7.2 permits lawyers to advertise online, and permissible content includes contact information, services, fees, foreign languages, references and clients, with their consent as well as other helpful information.
Good suggestions would include attorney profiles and achievements, practice areas, speeches, articles, videos, social media links, free downloads, and “contact us” forms. In addition, Ohio S.Ct. Op. 99-4 allows lawyers to create vanity URLs as long as they do not use addresses such as “willwinyourcaseforyou.com.” Top level domain names, include .atty, .law, and .lawyer, are also available to help lawyers raise their visibility online.
Print and electronic newsletters are another great marketing trend. Ohio S.Ct. Ops. 88-1 and 88-2 permit newsletters to clients and non-clients. Some lawyers may still want to send traditional mail advertisements to non-clients and businesses, both of which are permitted under Ohio S.Ct. Ops. 91-26 and 90-21.
Speaking at CLE programs or to community and school groups can help lawyers reach large groups of colleagues and potential clients. Ohio S.Ct. Ops. 2005-7 and 87-7 permit lawyers to speak at seminars and bar association pro bono or public education programs, as long as they do not provide unsolicited advice or recommend themselves. Ohio S.Ct. Op. 2015-2 recently stated that lawyers can provide seminars to prospective clients and leave brochures at the door, but they cannot answer legal questions afterward, unless services are provided pro bono.
Writing articles for bar journals gets lawyers noticed by colleagues who can make referrals, but lawyers can reach potential clients by submitting articles to industry and trade journals, a practice permitted by Ohio S.Ct. Op. 92-12. Joining non-lawyer organizations is another way to make new contacts. Under Rule 7.3, lawyers may engage in bonafide political, social, civil, fraternal, employee or trade organizations that recommend legal services to members. However, Ohio S.Ct. Op. 2002-5 prohibits lawyers from donating their services for auctions or fundraisers.
Lawyers considering mass media should know that Rule 7.2 permits TV, radio, and newspaper advertising, Ohio S.Ct. Op. 88- 29 permits billboards, and Ohio S.Ct. Op. 89-6 permits yellow page advertisements under fields of practice. Ohio S.Ct. Op. 92-3 also permits group TV advertising, but they are expensive attention grabbers which tend to generate a lot of unproductive leads and may lead to questionable marketing practices. Pursuant to Rule 7.2, lawyers can blanket an entire geographical area using auto-dialing services to leave robo-calls if they want to risk alienating potential clients. Although few have done it, Ohio lawyers may also setup dial-a-lawyer services pursuant to Ohio S.Ct. Op. 92-10.
Most lawyers would admit to being terrible at advertising their own services. As a result, Rule 7.2 permits lawyers to pay for group advertising, a legal services plan or a legal referral service. Rule 7.2 also permits hiring publicists and public relations professionals, as long as they only refer clients, without making “recommendations.” Ohio S.Ct. Op. 2000-5 echoes the same proviso for online referral services. In today’s online legal markets, some lawyers find that it makes sense to pay search engines like Google to rank them higher in search result lists, thus increasing their search engine optimization. Kathleen M. Dugan