Beware of the Referral Website

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Professionals love a good referral source. Some attorneys and others use referral service-providers to reach a wider audience via the internet. But these services are not without risk. A recent Indiana decision demonstrates the ethical pitfalls inherent in referral websites. In this decision, an attorney was held accountable for an improper advertising model utilized by the referral website.

In a decision issued last week, an attorney found himself on the wrong end of an ethics debate when the Indiana Supreme Court concluded that the American Association of Motorcycle Injury Lawyers referral service violated Indiana’s ethical rules. As part of the contract with AAMIL, the attorney received exclusive use of the site’s slogans and trademarks including its popular name “Law Tigers.” The Law Tigers website identified the defendant attorney as the exclusive source for legal services in his designated area.

The issue, according to the court, was that the website included generic examples of previous results obtained by other Law Tigers lawyers. The site boasted “Exceptional Results: Settlements and Verdicts” and a link to testimonials from other users. The defendant lawyer maintained his own website that was linked to the Law Tigers site. In his own site, the lawyer included a disclaimer that the firm was not permitted to include information about past settlements and verdicts. This was not enough for the court.

Despite the disclaimer, the Indiana Supreme Court held that the attorney’s use of the Law Tigers website violated the state’s ethical rules regarding advertisements containing past successes that implied a prediction of future success. The court found that the average would-be client could not distinguish between the attorney’s personal site, and the Law Tigers content and he was therefore responsible for the impermissible advertising.

The standard advertising model utilized by some referral services may run afoul of ethical rules in your jurisdiction. It is up to each attorney to self-monitor before using any referral source. While a firm’s personal advertising might be kosher, the firm could still be held liable for improper advertising by a referral service.