ABA violations, as pertains to marketing and advertising, are running rampant online. Rental SEO is a key problem for many firms, and even if a firm hires what they believe is a reputable company, they may still be breaking the model code because Rule 5.3 states:
A lawyer having direct supervisory authority over the non-lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer
Defining “reasonable efforts” is up for debate, and may be the sticking point in an argument against breaking the model code.
Sheeley Law in Rhode Island is a prime example of potential rule violations. The center of controversy is this article.
Reading this article, we see a few things:
- The writer is clearly not a native English speaker.
- The final paragraph mentions a specific lawyer.
- An additional paragraph links to the same lawyer.
- The article calls the attorney a “worthy workers compensation attorney.”
There are a few issues with this article, and yes, some of this may be speculation to an extent, but it does open up the debate on ABA rule violations and legal professionals possibly not knowing that they’re breaking the rules. In this case, the attorney refused to comment about any of the articles and has not removed or edited the articles.
Note: The mention of a native English speaker writing the article is important. Cheap marketing and SEO services use cheap writers to keep their costs low. It’s evident in the article that the writer is not a native speaker, which is indicative of low-cost marketing and SEO practices. The inclusion of the lawyer’s link and “testimonial” are both clear signs of paid advertising.
So, what’s the big deal?
The FTC Prohibits Paid Testimonials
The FTC prohibits paid testimonials, and based off of the language of the article, it’s plausible that a reader may view it as an endorsement. When an endorsement is given with a monetary exchange, it’s required that the endorsement comes with a disclosure.
A good example of digital endorsements that were not disclosed and ended in large settlements includes the FTC vs. Warner Bros.
The company settled a case based on charges that the company paid online influencers money to post gameplay videos of the company’s Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor game. The company paid thousands of dollars to influencers to review the game with positive gameplay.
Warner Bros. acted in a way similar to the link-building article above:
- Influencers were paid, in much the same way the writer of the article was likely paid.
- Influencers were told how to promote the game. The keyword given for the link is done for a similar purpose in the law firm’s article.
The FTC alleges that Warner Bros failed to require paid influencers to adequately disclose the fact.
If you pay close attention to the law firm’s two links, you’ll notice that one goes to the firm’s own page and another to the attorney’s Law Link page. When digging deeper, we found that this Law Link page also had questionable endorsements.
An article, found here, also contains links to the firm’s website and the Law Link page, and you can tell that the page is written by a non-native speaker. Again, there are endorsements stating:
- One of the most celebrated and credible attorneys
- The most competent lawyer in the state
You’ll also find blatant link-building efforts and endorsements:
No, not all of these links are endorsements, but the ones that are, if they’re paid, will be breaking both the FTC and ABA rules. ABA tends to define endorsement pretty broadly.
In Rhode Island, the local bar association requires endorsements to be identified as such and any fees disclosed. The rules also requires disclosure if the endorsement is made by a non-client.
All endorsements aren’t bad. If a person has real experience with a law firm and recommends them on every website they can, this is not illegal. But when these recommendations, whether requested or not, are paid and don’t include a disclosure, this is asking for trouble.
If, and it’s a big if, someone were to point the issue out to the FTC, it’s possible that the articles would be deemed in violation because they’re asking an inexperienced person to talk and mention a law firm they have no prior experience with.