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Can a law student market herself to “future clients” while not licensed?

Jared Correia, respected advisor to Law Office Management Assistance Program for the Massachusetts Bar, commented in an interview with The Girl’s Guide to Law School as follows.

The shadow consideration underlying everything that I have said in answer to this question [ed. – regarding online marketing] is that future lawyers need not wait to graduate law school to begin to market themselves as entities, to showcase themselves for potential employers, or to create something of a track record of who they are as an attorney, for future potential clients to review, as a deeper look at where they came from, with the whole packaged online development perhaps ending up making the difference, at least initially, in who those future potential clients choose to hire. While law students cannot blog in the same way that practicing attorneys do, they can create a reputation for themselves based on those things that they can blog about: their legal subject interests, case notes/reviews, life as a law student, preparations for practice, and etc.

In the rest of the piece, Mr. Correia gives some wise advice regarding professionalizing one’s Facebook page and related topics both to non-attorneys and to attorneys. I think there is a lot of wisdom in the rest of the piece, but I have reservations about the comment above.

One really cannot be in the act of marketing a product or service which is unlawful to offer. Almost every state has an unauthorized practice of law statute criminalizing the practice of law without authorization. Many of those states have common-law criminal doctrines regarding attempted crimes, including my beloved Maryland, such that the act of marketing to “future clients.”

There is certainly nothing wrong with going out of one’s way to remove unprofessional material from one’s online presence to the extent that one can do so. Nor is there any problem with discussing law, the legal system or, for the most part, the practice of law; such commentary is protected under the First Amendment.┬áThe problem is in either offering legal advice or holding oneself out as someone who may lawfully offer legal advice. I don’t think that Mr. Correia was actually advocating anything on the wrong side of the line; indeed given his role I would astonished if he were to do so. The problem is that the readers of this blog are NOT lawyers but law students, i.e. people who not only have not been licensed by a Bar to offer legal advice for hire but who have not even necessarily passed a Professional Responsibility course in law school. Mr. Correia’s advice is like whiskey: a fine product but problematic for the inexperienced.

I can easily see an entrepreneurial-minded law student reader of the Girl’s Guide to Law School starting to “market” herself online to potential clients from her second-year law school dorm or apartment, using Mr. Correia’s advice (or maybe a unfair corruption of it) in doing so. The law student has no malpractice insurance; she’s uninsurable. She has probably not completed Professional Responsibility coursework. She read on a website interview of a respected law practice management leader that she can begin to market herself online, and there’s no Bar community, no mentor, no law professor on her laptop to stand athwart her ambition and shout “HALT!” Thus she jams both her quasi-clients and herself, when the Bar examiners in her state find her blog through Ye Olde Wayback Machine when she applies. The Girl’s Guide to Law School will not save her then.

None of this train wreck could be what Mr. Correia intended; he is by all appearances a conscientious and decent man with a strict ethical sense who would never wish such a mess on potential quasi-clients, law students or the Bar. But it’s not hard for me to see it happening.

Short answer in my view: there’s nothing wrong ethically with marketing oneself as a law student or future attorney to other attorneys for employment, and nothing wrong with commenting on the law or the legal profession, even at great length and detail. But there exists no license whatsover to market oneself to future clients without a valid law license; “future clients” don’t actually exist. Such marketing can begin, if at all, only after the last act or condition precedent necessary to perfect a law license application and approval is satisfied. In Maryland, that involves taking an oath in Annapolis on Rowe Boulevard before seven red-robed judges and signing an entry book on that day. Until then, neither clients nor future clients actually exist.

5 Comments

  1. Alison Monahan

    Great point, and one prospective law student bloggers would do well to keep in mind. Hopefully their schools have made it clear they can’t offer any legal advice until they’re members of the bar, but it’s always good to be reminded of that fact!

    That being said, I don’t see real problems with blog posts talking about what’s going on in school, interesting things they’ve read, etc.

    But I would suggest a “this is NOT legal advice” disclaimer!

  2. Bruce Godfrey

    Allison thanks for dropping in and for your thoughtful comment. I love your blog’s style points! Best to you. BG

  3. Jared Correia

    Bruce, this is a good extension position, to a point. And, you’re right, law students are not marketing as lawyers to clients; they can’t. I address this point, and related points, myself, in a parenthetical aside included within the post, which parenthetical aside you have not cut here. However, I, too, don’t think it is somehow wrong or dangerous for law students to market themselves as future lawyers for future clients, as you grant. Neither the law students nor potential clients can act on any of that, of course, in the short-term; but, for law students, in a legal environment that gets more and more competitive each year, creating a brand that potential referral sources and potential clients will remember, when/if the time comes for a retention discussion to take place, just makes good business sense. As to your point of law students acting outside of the accepted ethics canon, I would add that most of the law students/young lawyers I talk to are far more cautious about these matters than veteran attorneys.

    Please also note that the segment of text here has been edited (not in answer to this post) for clarity, since you have posted it here.

    The economic reality is that law students need to start branding themselves while they are still in school for purposes of finding a job, or building a reputation upon which to create a solo, or small firm, practice, which can be done without running afoul of ethics requirements. Neither is it inconceivable that the law student, when he/she becomes an attorney, will take as a client someone who has followed his/her web presence through law school and graduation and bar passage and sweating-in.

    My intention is as I have stated it in the post, and clarified it here. In any event, it is up to the law student to determine whether specific marketing efforts would be in violation of ethics rules. While that may sounds like a cop-out, I can’t answer for every potential scenario; and, in the end, people rise and fall by their own actions.

  4. Bruce Godfrey

    Jared, thank you for your reply and my best to you and LOMAP. I hope you are right about the ethical standards of the next generation.

    You are of course absolutely right that it is up to the law student to police her own ethical compliance (and statutory compliance with criminal law, I’d add.) It’s not a cop-out.

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