Lawyers are now confronting the topic of ethics when they use search engines — in advertising and marketing — to attract new clients.
A New Jersey ethics authority offered guidance on what’s fair and what’s off limits for lawyers.
In an opinion written and published in June, but made public this week, the Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics said a lawyer may purchase a sponsored search keyword on a competing lawyer’s name, as long as it remains consistent with the rules governing attorney ethics.
The committee found that purchasing a competitor lawyer’s name as a keyword does not violate the rules governing attorney advertising.
The committee did draw the line at another form of sponsored search marketing where the lawyer pays to insert a hyperlink to their own website on the name of a competing lawyer, according to one report. That would mean someone who clicked on the competitor’s name in a search result would be diverted to a competitor lawyer’s website instead.
“Redirecting a user from the competitor’s website to the lawyer’s own website is purposeful conduct intended to deceive the searcher for the other lawyer’s website,” according to the Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics.
Any “purposeful conduct intended to deceive the searcher for the other lawyer’s website” would be considered fraudulent, deceptive or dishonest.
As an example, Law.com referenced a trademark infringement suit in June 2018 brought on by Helmer, Conley & Kasselman of Haddon Heights against Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Hark & Hark where they used Google’s sponsored search advertising to lure prospective clients who had searched for Helmer Conley.
The suit claimed people searching on Google searches for terms such as “Helmer law office” or “Helmer lawyer” brought up search results with the heading “Helmer Conley Kasselman, Aggressive Criminal Defense.”
The search results listed the New Jersey street address and telephone number of Hark & Hark, so clicking on the result brought up the Hark & Hark website, Helmer Conley alleged, according to law.com.