LinkedIn is perhaps the go to social media site for professionals seeking to promote their achievements and build their brand. LinkedIn has carved a niche within the social media landscape by integrating networking capabilities with the specific needs of professionals hoping to build relationships. Of course, the site also allows users to “endorse” a connection for certain practice areas or to write recommendations as to the user’s skill-set. It is this component of the site that has generated professional ethics issues and opinions. Moreover, the distinction between permissible networking and improper advertising is not always well defined. The NY County Lawyers Association Professional Ethics Committee recently published a formal ethics opinion that provides guidance to attorneys using sites such as LinkedIn.
The opinion notes that LinkedIn offers users wide latitude in the manner and degree to which they choose to populate personal informational fields. For instance, some users may only list education and work experience; others may include comprehensive information like skills, endorsements, and recommendations. Likewise, users may vary the degree of accessibility of their profiles. These varying degrees of activity may potentially place users at risk of violating attorney advertising rules.
New York Rule of Professional Conduct 7.1 prohibits attorneys and law firms from disseminating any advertisement that contains false or misleading claims. The term “advertisement” includes “communications made in any form about the lawyer’s services, the primary purpose of which is retention of the lawyer or law firm for pecuniary gain as a result of the communication.” The rule permits attorneys to include education experience in an advertisement, but expressly prohibits undisclosed paid endorsements and fictitious portrayals or references to lawyers not associated with the firm.
Further, the rule requires that online advertisements be labeled as “Attorney Advertising” and include a disclaimer that results are not guaranteed.
Applying these rules, the committee determined that LinkedIn profiles that contain only biographical information, such as education and work history, do not constitute advertisements, even if the person’s work history could attract potential clients. However, the committee cautioned that additional information such as skills and endorsements, may cross the line into advertising. Further, listing specific skill sets or accepting endorsements may violate Rule 7.4, which prohibits a lawyer from identifying herself as a “specialist.”
Attorneys must pay close attention to their social media activity to ensure that they remain compliant with the developing ethics rules. If a communication is intended for pecuniary gain, it should be treated as an advertisement and all relevant rules of advertising must be followed. This involves ensuring the accuracy of all information, deleting misleading content, and including relevant disclaimers.