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Should Judges Provide Online Recommendations? Maryland Weighs In

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Should Judges Provide Online Recommendations? Maryland Weighs In

In 2019, most lawyers have accepted that the internet, and online marketing, is here to stay. For some lawyers, the extent of their practice’s online marketing is a law firm website. Others are more tech-savvy and also use social media platforms and other online tools to market their law practice. 

Of course, with those forays into online marketing come ethical missteps. In the beginning, the internet really did feel like the Wild Wild West. But over time, that changed, and ethics committees across the country have stepped up to the plate and provided lawyers with the ethical guidance needed to successfully navigate the 21st century online legal marketing landscape.

One recent opinion of interest that addressed an issue that I haven’t seen covered elsewhere arose in Maryland. In this case, the inquiring attorney was a judge who had a question regarding participation on Avvo. The specific issue under consideration by the Maryland Judicial Ethics Committee in Opinion Request Number: 2019-24 was whether it was ethically permissible for a judge to provide a recommendation for a former law clerk on Avvo.

In the past, ethics committees and courts have considered whether it is permissible for judges to form connections on social media sites with lawyers who practice before them, and the general consensus has been that they may and that doing so doesn’t usually require judges to recuse themselves in order to avoid the appearance of impartiality.. See, for example, ABA Formal Opinion 488 and Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein v. United States Automobile Association, No. SC17-1848 (2018).

In the Maryland opinion, the Committee was faced with a similar issue: Whether providing an Avvo recommendation on behalf of and at the request of the inquirer’s former law clerk could be perceived as affecting the judge’s appearance of impartiality.

At the outset, the Committee necessarily focused on Avvo, describing it as “a comprehensive online legal marketplace connecting consumers and lawyers through its online directory, attorney profiles, Q&A forum, reviews, and other features…(and) offers search tools that facilitate discovery of attorneys…(and each attorney) profile may also include client reviews and attorney endorsements.”

The Committee then turned to the issue of judicial recommendations, explaining that in some cases, judges may ethically provide a reference or recommendation on their official letterhead for an individual based upon the judge's personal knowledge, as long as “the reference is personal and if there is no likelihood that the use of the letterhead would reasonably be perceived as an attempt to exert pressure by reason of the judicial office.”

Next the Committee analyzed the implications of an official judicial endorsement on the Avvo site. The Committee noted that because the judicial endorsement could not be anonymized due to the functionality of the Avvo platform and would be accessible by the general public, it “could potentially benefit the judicially promoted attorney to the disadvantage of others…(and) it presents a clear case of lending prestige that allows another to advance his or her economic interests.”

Accordingly, the Committee determined that judges may not provide Avvo recommendations to attorneys, including former clerks, since doing so negates the appearance of impartiality: “Requestor's Avvo endorsement would quite validly invite neutrality challenges from opposing parties and counsel whenever the endorsed attorney represented the adversary in the judge's courtroom… (and thus a) judge may not confer the prestige of judicial office to an attorney's marketing efforts.”

I’m in agreement with the Committee on this issue. A judicial recommendation on a publicly accessible site like Avvo is more consequential than the existence of a social media connection. Not only does it imply a connection closer than that of a mere social media friendship, it also implies an endorsement that could be perceived as a partiality towards the recipient.

As I always say, the online is simply an extension of the offline. The implications of a judicial recommendation in a public forum are clear, whether it’s a newspaper or a social media site: there is the risk of the perception of judicial preference toward that person. In other words, in this case, the medium does not change the message.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She 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 Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com.