We work hard. We achieve results. We want to develop business as a result of those successes. That’s all understandable since self-promotion is an important part of the development of professionals. By touting personal achievements, professionals are better able to position themselves to compete for new clients. Not surprisingly, many professionals include personal accolades in advertising materials. While the use of awards may be an effective advertising tool, if can also lead to ethical violations when done improperly.
The New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Attorney Advertising recently issued a notice to attorneys that addresses the ethical concerns of using awards in promotional materials. The Committee determined that a lawyer who seeks to advertise the receipt of an award that compares the lawyer’s services to others, must make sure that the organization bestowing the award has conducted an actual review into the attorney’s qualifications, and considered the attorney’s skill in selecting the lawyer for inclusion. A mere assessment of the number of years that the lawyer has been practicing, or a showing of lack of disciplinary history does not suffice.
The Committee continued that many of the awards given to attorneys in its investigation were from organizations that did not perform a bona fide inquiry into the fitness of the attorney, and were instead simply awarded to attorneys who had a sufficient number of votes from their peers, such as the “Super Lawyers” or “Rising Stars” designations. Similarly, other awards were given to attorneys simply for joining an organization or participating in certain legal programs.
The Committee viewed these types of awards with suspicion. In order to avoid misleading clients with reference to such awards, the Committee instructed that attorneys must include additional information about the methodology of the award if referencing it in advertising, or include a link to the awarding organization’s website to clarify the basis for the award. The Committee also instructed that lawyers who are given awards that appear to describe the lawyer’s qualification, such as using the terms “super” or “best,” must make clear that the title is merely the name of the award bestowed upon a list of professionals, and is not an actual description of the attorney’s ability.
Professionals who fail to clarify the basis for achieving an award, or who use recognition in an organization to mislead clients about their ability, run the risk of violating ethics rules in advertising an incurring personal liability.