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New York Bar on LinkedIn, Lawyers, and “Specialties”

Stacked3This week's Daily Record column is entitled "New York Bar on LinkedIn, Lawyers, and “Specialties”." My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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New York Bar on LinkedIn, Lawyers, and “Specialties”

LinkedIn, the “professional” social network, is the most popular social media site amongst lawyers, with over 98% of individual lawyers reporting that they use it according to the American Bar Association’s 2013 Legal Technology Survey. But, as if the case whenever lawyers do just about anything in their professional capacity, ethical issues can arise when lawyers interact on LinkedIn. 

In fact, for years now, legal ethicists have speculated that one aspect of LinkedIn profiles, the “specialties” field, creates a potential ethical dilemma for lawyers in most jurisdictions. Many have suggested that lawyers who list their areas of practice in that field arguably violate the ethical rules which prohibit lawyers from stating that they “specialize” in a particular area of law. 

Now that question has been answered for New York layers with the issuance of Op. 972 in June of this year--and it turns out that the concerns raised by the legal ethicists were valid. 

The specific question at issue in this opinion was: “When a lawyer or law firm provides certain kinds of legal services, and is listed on a social media site that includes a section labeled ‘Specialties,’ may the lawyer or law firm use that section to describe the kinds of services provided?”

In reaching its decision, the Committee on Professional Ethics first set forth Rule 7.4, which addresses the issue of statements that lawyers are permitted to make about their areas of practice. It provides: “A lawyer or law firm may publicly identify one or more areas of law in which the lawyer or the law firm practices, or may state that the practice of the lawyer or law firm is limited to one or more areas of law, provided that the lawyer or law firm shall not state that the lawyer or law firm is a specialist or specializes in a particular field of law, except as provided in Rule 7.4(c).” 

The Committee then explained that Rule 7.4(c) permits lawyers to state that they are specialists in a particular area of law, but only if certified as a specialist by an appropriate organization or governmental authority.

Next, the Committee applied these rules to the issue at hand to determine how lawyers and law firms can ethically utilize the “specialties” field on LinkedIn. 

First, the Committee concluded that although lawyers are permitted to identify areas of practice, only those certified as a specialist by an appropriate organization may list those areas in the “Specialties” field on LinkedIn: “If a lawyer has been certified as a specialist in a particular area of law or law practice by an organization or authority as provided in Rule 7.4(c), then the lawyer may so state if the lawyer complies with that Rule’s disclaimer provisions.”

However, the Committee noted that the exception set forth in Rule 7.4(c) applies only to individual lawyers and not law firms, and thus “Rule 7.4(c) does not provide that a law firm (as opposed to an individual lawyer) may claim recognition or certification as a specialist, and Rule 7.4(a) would therefore prohibit such a claim by a firm...”

Importantly, the Committee declined to address whether Rule 7.4 would be violated if “a lawyer or law firm could, consistent with Rule 7.4(a), list practice areas under other headings such as ‘Products & Services’ or ‘Skills and Expertise.’” As such, the ethics of doing so remains up in the air in New York and lawyers  and law firms would be wise to avoid listing their areas of practice under those sections of their LinkedIn profile.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and Director of Business Development and Community Relations at MyCase, an intuitive cloud-based law practice management platform for the modern law firm. She is also a GigaOM Pro Analyst and is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can be reached at niki@mycase.com.