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Lawyers in Cyberspace: Florida Supreme Court Grants Another 90 Day Extension on Enforcement of Website Regulations June 18, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Law, Ethics & Society.
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The Supreme Court of Florida  decided in November, 2009, that lawyers’ websites are subject to the Florida Bar’s advertising rules.  Enforcement of the new regulations has been delayed by a six month moratorium scheduled  to expire July 1st which has  now been extended by another 90 days from whenever the Court rules on the petition filed by the Florida Bar that contains the draft of the new rule.   Why is this worth mentioning?  Well, the problem is that probably every lawyer who has a website in Florida is in violation of the new regulations.  And why are the professionals who are licensed to practice law, not in compliance with the law?

 Essentially, the issue revolves around the phrase “information upon request.”  If you are surfing the internet and looking for a lawyer, the rules used to say that the lawyer’s website was information that you were requesting rather than advertising.  Under the new regulations, the website is an advertisement regardless of how long it might have taken you to find it.  So, the lawyer is not allowed, on the home page, to have testimonials from clients or otherwise have information about past achievements–the reasoning is that this type of information is inherently misleading.  If the lawyer places a disclaimer box with certain language explaining that your case may be different, etc and then you are required to click various boxes acknowledging the information and indicating that you want to see the remainder of the website, then you will be able to peruse the entire website.

Lawyers advertising their services has caused controversy for years.  The debate usually involves a discussion of whether law is a profession or a business and the negative perception created by lawyers marketing their “wares” and appearing to be “ambulance chasers” or otherwise preying on unsuspecting members of the public.  The U.S. Supreme Court  has recognized that the legal profession is entitled to the use of commercial speech, but  has also recognized that states may regulate the speech when there is a compelling state interest.  Generally, it is a balancing test that considers the public’s right to the “free flow of information” versus the state’s interest in protecting the public from misleading information, coercion, invasion of privacy, etc.

Interestingly, many of the students in the  class  that I taught with Scott Rogers this spring, Professional Responsibility and Mindfulness: Ethics for Lawyers in the Digital Age, thought that all of the advertising rules for lawyers are extreme.  These students have grown up with the internet, deem law to be a business and believe consumers are more savvy these days.  The “older generation” in Tallahassee disagrees and so it goes…If you are a Florida lawyer, there is a website consultant awaiting your “click”  right now.

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