1) If you claim that your firm has 20 years’ experience and your firm has four lawyers with 4-6 years’ experience, you may as well go to Las Vegas (altitude about 2,900 feet) 10 times and claim you have been to the summit at Mount Everest (altitude about 29,000 feet). Some people will see through the puffery but many won’t; that’s actually the point of those ads – to get people to pretend that a
2) If you claim to be the “[fill in state here] Criminal Defender” and you are not in fact a public defender, your ad misleads the public as the public will think that that title denotes the local public defender. This means that you are either sloppy on ethics or sloppy on communication skills; neither sloppiness commends your hire.
3) If your state bar requires you explicitly to put the name of your firm or the name of an attorney on your ads, and you refuse to put either on your Craigslist ad, you manifest not only contempt for your Bar but also for your own name. If you are advertising ethically, you should be PROUD to see your name spelled correctly on your ad, just as you would on your letterhead.
4) Saying that you are aggressive and experienced says nothing. Define aggressive and define experienced in real terms. Or don’t. Better, don’t; every hack out there is aggressive and experienced. What, you expect to see an ad marked “lawyer: meek, new and doesn’t know squat!?” (although that ad might have shock value, I guess, for the sheer stunning effect of honesty.) The only thing that saying you are “aggressive and experienced” qualifies you for is getting a $9/hour job writing ad copy for other lawyers’ ads with the words “aggressive” and “experienced” in them.
5) What’s a good, ethical way of demonstrating competence rather than merely claiming it in $9/hour ad copy? Well, preparing useful, accurate information (not advice, just basic info) about the legal system for public use is one way. My law practice is often (very often, actually) one of the top-two firms found by search engines for Maryland unemployment appeals and often in the top 10 for Maryland traffic court (or so my prospective clients tell me.) I don’t spend any funds to elevate my SEO; what I did was to put two non-fantastic, nerdy but competent guides to Maryland unemployment appeals and Maryland traffic court on my site, edit them periodically; I get compliments on these posts and on my home-spun site for reasons I don’t quite understand.
There’s no secret sauce, no SEO manipulation (white-hat or black-hat). It’s more like showing a picture of an order of french fries as a way of saying “French fries are cooked here, and can be ordered.”
6) “Former Assistant State’s Attorney.” DISCLOSURE: I am NOT a former assistant state’s attorney, though I clerked in a prosecutor’s office decades ago before I was sworn in. I have not worked for the government since my Maryland licensure on December 13, 1994.
To a Maryland attorney, “former Assistant State’s Attorney” = “former misdemeanor prosecutor” because someone with more advanced experience would use more specific language. Someone who had worked for many years would say “long-time assistant state’s attorney.” Someone who had prosecuted rape or murder charges or more specific forms of theft (white collar, warehouse, auto, etc.) would likely use highly specific language to identify her or his experience. Someone who had been a division chief or deputy would likely say so.
“Former Assistant State’s Attorney” has about the same ring as “discharged veteran” or “former airman” (there are no “former Marines”) – his or her service may have been (and let us hope, was) honorable, but it doesn’t say much specific. A private who musters out on a general discharge with a mildly but not severely blemished record for, say, petty drunkenness and a retired colonel honorably discharged after a commendable career of distinction are both “discharged veterans,” but we’d expect the colonel to state that he or she retired as a colonel, not as a former soldier or airman.
In the minds of some potential clients, “former Assistant State’s Attorney” may suggest a longer, more extensive career in prosecution than may be the case. To the extent that “Assistant State’s Attorney” sounds like an elected office or state-wide appointed office to some people, the term may be misleading. There is no sound basis for that to be misleading to potential clients; the term is exactly accurate and there’s nothing wrong with stating the fact in itself. It may, however, deceive in practice some potential clients that are less familiar with the legal system or Maryland’s constitutional; a hacktastic effect from a non-hacktastic statement of the precise truth.
7) What are some good ways to advertise that are ethical and promote high standards? Well, maintaining efficient call-back policies is one such way. Poor communication by attorneys is among the top generator of bad will and ethical grievances. If you set a policy of 24 hour call-backs and enforce that policy, you will have a happier client base and expose yourself to far fewer problems. I won’t claim that I enforced that policy through the entirety of my career, but it’s in my Client Bill of Rights now and has been since the first months, maybe weeks (I forget) of my solo practice. When I (rarely) fail to call back or email in time, I apologize.
Good thing about a 24-hour call back policy: the first-year lawyer can call the client back as quickly as the attorney at her retirement dinner. The telephone buttons don’t discriminate against the young, the new or the green.
Another thing you can do to shock clients is to apologize when you drop the ball; the mere act of taking responsibility for a screw-up stuns people and makes you memorable, though if you plan to run for office you may wish to avoid developing this potentially dangerous habit.