The Maryland State Bar Association’s Bar Journal is always a worthy read but there are particular articles worth reading for many solo attorneys in the most recent issue. Preeminent attorney discipline attorney Alvin Frederick, Esquire, of Eccleston & Wolf and Associate Bar Counsel James Gaither, Esquire, provided an article on online professional ethics and cybersecurity, respectively. Each article merits your time if you practice in this state.
I was interested to read that the Office of Bar Counsel of Maryland is now, as of the last 60 days or so, running a paperless office. My own office is making that transition and it would be worth reading how the Office of Bar Counsel undertook the process; that fact was not the central point of Mr. Gaither’s piece, but of interest to me.
Mr. Frederick’s piece (which I believe he co-authored, will give full credit when I return to the office tomorrow) discussed among other topics the issue of online puffery in attorney ads. While puffery in attorney ads is not a new ethical concern, the Internet seems to have instigated (or at least accompanied) a race to the bottom. The Bar Journal article noted that an attorney who claimed in such an ad to be the “most aggressive” would be engaging in misconduct unless the attorney could substantiate the claim objectively – a likely impossible task. In my experience, the more common forms of online puffery are claims to be the “best” attorney in some field under either no objective criteria or under paper-thin rent-an-award standards from some attorney marketing company without peer review, comment or objective measurements.
I used to put my Avvo rating on this site; I won’t name my current rating but it presents me very well. On the other hand, I have a substantially higher Avvo rating than some of the undisputed leaders of this state’s Bar. There’s no way that I am a superior attorney to the some of the attorneys who were already Bar leaders on the day that I sat for the Bar exam in 1994, but Avvo will tell you that I am superior to them. With some regrets, as there are things about Avvo that I did and do like, I no longer list that score here because to do so would be at least theoretically misleading to some clients. Avvo unfortunately has the problem of profiting from this sort of serious misinformation. Long-time attorney rating service Martindale-Hubbell (now owned by Lexis) has similar, though perhaps smaller, problems.
Just test this out: google “Best attorney [town]” and watch what comes up. You can also google “attorney specialist [field of law] Maryland” and see the same sort of thing. This blog has an attorney “specialist” [sic] finder for Maryland attorneys through Google some months ago, but I took it down because it seemed like overkill. Many attorneys claim to be the “best” or the “top” attorney, in suspect if not outright definite violation of the rules against lying to clients about attorney skill sets and quality.
Every attorney should be and accordingly feel proud to claim to be competent. Competence is Rule 1.1 of the ethics rules in Maryland and in most states; it’s at the top of the rule book. Know what you are doing, or at a minimum associate with attorneys as needed to fill in the knowledge gaps. But any claim above competence needs to be verifiable objectively if it’s designed for, or has the effect of, inducing a client to retain or keep the attorney. If something is objectively true and verifiable as such, it’s probably fine to state that it’s true, but the number of attorneys (particularly new to practice) who claim to be “the top” or “the best” attorneys is almost staggering. Many of the those attorneys may actually fall short of technical competence, let along being better than the attorneys who have been doing CLE for junior attorneys for 20 years or who wrote the Maryland hornbooks or standard manuals for their practice areas.
When I judge another attorney’s skill or leadership, here’s what I look for:
- Peer-reviewed scholarship or publication, either in
- Providing CLE in that’s attorneys field (if you have been teaching the material for a while, you are going to be getting it right in all likelihood). Maryland doesn’t have much of a problem of garbage time-filler CLE because CLE is not mandatory (yet.)
- Mentoring roles in helping other attorneys
- Leadership in speciality bar associations
- Pro bono work
- Consistent high ratings over time from peer-reviewed ratings services
- Appellate work in the practice field
- Peer Review Committee work with the AGC
- Representing other attorneys in any litigation, disciplinary or otherwise
- The opinions of attorneys who fulfill 3-4 or more of the above
- A website that deals in substance and actual practice issues, and not mere puffery
- Humility regarding skills or experience – this actually makes me up-rate the attorney in my mind, for ethical caution and long-term thinking
An online ad claiming that the attorney is “top” or “best” is likely to make me down-rate the attorney, under the theory that the lawyer is both minimally accomplished and reckless regarding ethical compliance. An online ad stating that the Maryland attorney “specializes” (or using any other part of speech) tells me that the attorney either is reckless regarding ethical compliance or is at least negligent regarding the supervision of the social media hacks that the attorney hired to “get eyeballs” or “make good SEO.”