Making sure your website is compliant with the State Bar of Texas ad rules is just one of the many responsibilities for Texas lawyers and law firms who are launching a new site or updating an existing site.
The Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct include many regulations that cover exactly what can and cannot be included on legal websites. Unfortunately, many sites are launched in a rush with no consideration for the implications of having a noncompliant site.
Just like television or print advertisements, websites are considered advertising by the State Bar of Texas. That means that your site’s content must be submitted for approval to the State Bar Advertising Review Committee, which has maintained responsibility for approving and monitoring legal advertising, including websites, for more than 20 years.
The State Bar requires that all public ads, including websites, be submitted to Ad Review along with a $100 application fee for preapproval or concurrent review. Sites submitted for preapproval are reviewed within 25 days.
Those who submit at the same time their sites go live will hear from Ad Review within 40 days. If your site complies with the rules, then you’ll receive an approval notice. If not, you’ll receive a “disapproved” notice with a list of areas where your site needs changes to be compliant.
Firm websites that fail to meet approval must be updated to be compliant within 20 days. If the violations are not resolved, the Ad Review staff will file a complaint with the Bar’s Disciplinary Counsel. Another way you can be hit with a complaint is if a member of the public or one of your competitors reports a violation on your site to Ad Review.
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Common Ad Rules Violations
Solo practitioners, legal boutiques, and even large megafirms encounter many of the same problems when their websites face the Ad Review process. While some might believe their website need only to be truthful, the reality is there are many ways a seemingly “innocent” site can be found in violation.
Board Certification – Many individual lawyers and firms note on their websites that they “specialize” in a certain area of law. While that may be true in a practical sense, the word “specialize” is a term of art when it comes to legal advertising. Specifically, the ad rules do not allow an attorney to advertise that they “specialize” in any area of law unless they have earned Board Certification from the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. Said differently, if you haven’t earned Board Certification in one of the 24 areas offered by TBLS, then you are at risk of being hit with a complaint if the word “specialize” or a similar term is used to describe your work.The word “specialize” is a term of art when it comes to lawyer advertising in TX, so don't use it on your law firm website if you haven’t earned Board Certification in one of the 24 areas offered by TBLS. Click To Tweet
Professional Honors – The ad rules also cover the way you list professional honors on your website, such as selection to The Best Lawyers in America or the annual Texas Super Lawyers list. While some lawyers simply post a logo from whatever group presented them with the honor, the ad rules require that you also list the group that is presenting the actual award. For example, simply saying “John Doe is Texas Super Lawyer” will result in a notice of noncompliance from the Ad Review Committee. Instead, it should read “John Doe was named on the 2018 Texas Super Lawyers list by Super Lawyers, a division of Thomson Reuters.”
Unfair Comparison to Other Firms – Under the current rules, attorneys are prohibited from comparing their services with other lawyers’ services unless the comparison can be substantiated by verifiable, objective data. Many lawyers unwittingly violate this rule when trying to differentiate themselves or their firms. For example, if your website says, “Most law firms will handle your case by doing X, but we do Y,” then you are subject to receive a violation notice.Steer clear of one of the most common ad rule violations for law firm websites in TX: don't compare your firm/lawyers with others without verifiable, objective data to back it up. Click To Tweet
Listing Verdict Amounts – All of us have seen ads and websites that tout prior legal victories alongside the amount awarded by a jury. Guess what? Most of them are violating the ad rules. When listing a dollar award, Texas lawyers are required to disclose how much of that award went to the client, how much went to the lawyers and how much was deducted for litigation expenses. That means your site is in violation if it includes dollar figures without all the elements listed above.
Photos of Non-lawyers – Many firms rely on stock photography when assembling their websites for a variety of reasons, including the expense of professional photography. Stock photos typically are used to communicate a setting, such as a business meeting or medical exam. Unfortunately, most of those pictures also include images of real people who have no affiliation with the firm. Since the Texas rules prohibit using an actor or model to portray a client or firm attorney, your site may be hit with a complaint or notice of violation if it includes a photo of someone who doesn’t work at your firm or who isn’t clearly labeled as a client.
Bruce Vincent is a writer and editor who has helped large and small firms create and maintain State Bar compliant marketing materials and websites for more than 20 years. He was the only reporter in the state to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of the 1995 federal trial that resulted in the Texas ad rules. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how our team can make sure your website and all your advertising comply with the State Bar rules.