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Is Another Lawyer Using Your Name to Get Clients?

Buying ads on another attorney’s name is about to be a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct in North Carolina.

Our North Carolina State Bar has been busy recently. It has just published a proposed Formal Opinion that bars lawyers from running search engine ads targeting another lawyer’s name. It may soon adopt the opinion after the time for comment has passed.

It’s making it a violation of the rules to buy ads targeting another lawyer’s name. It’s prohibiting Lawyer X from running ads targeting searches for Lawyer Y’s name.

Unfortunately, the enforcement of rules like the one proposed may be tricky.

Here’s the scenario:

Lawyer X is trying to grow his practice. He’s running ads on Google AdWords (the little ads you see when you do a Google search). In setting up his campaign, he picks some keywords including “Raleigh Divorce Lawyer.” That’s a good search term, he assumes, to get in front of consumers searching for a lawyer in Raleigh.

His ads start running, and he begins to get some clicks and ultimately, some clients.

Then he gets some unpleasant news in the form of a grievance from the North Carolina State Bar.

The grievance, in my hypothetical scenario, was filed by one of his competitors when she noticed that a Google search for her name plus the phrase “Raleigh divorce lawyer” displayed ads for the other lawyer. For instance, if you Google search “Lee Rosen Raleigh divorce lawyer” (that’s the screenshot of the search results page above), you’re going to see my listing in the organic results, plus you’re going to see lots of ads appearing around the periphery of the page. Those ads are purchased by other lawyers.

Are those advertising lawyers targeting “Lee Rosen”? Probably not. They’re probably targeting the keyword phrase “Raleigh divorce lawyer,” but their ads come up because their phrase is attached to my name in the search. If you do a search on “Lee Rosen” alone, then you’re not going to see the ads. (You may, however, see a Morgan Stanley ad, interestingly.) However, it’s possible and indeed likely that a lawyer wouldn’t target just the lawyer’s name. The lawyer will likely target the name combined with some descriptive words. It’s cheaper to target specific phrases than broad phrases, so it’s good advertising practice to narrow the keyword phrase targeted.

Many Google searchers looking for me type my name coupled with something like “divorce lawyer” or “NC divorce lawyer.” They do that because it narrows down the results and is more likely to give them what they’re looking for. They will almost always use descriptive words when they need to find someone with a very common name.

The bottom line is that it’s really hard to tell what keywords the advertiser targeted based on the ads that appear. It’s exceedingly complicated.

As lawyers become aware of this Opinion, I suspect they’re going to check their names and see whether anyone is targeting their names. When the ads pop up, they’re going to assume their competition is violating the rules. Emotions will rule, and grievances will be filed: I predict chaos.

When regulators get involved in advertising and commercial speech, things get tricky. This is a complex issue involving significant legal and technological challenges. Be aware that regulatory authorities are reviewing these concerns and attempting to intervene in appropriate ways. Be aware that you can get caught in the crossfire.

If you’re endeavoring to grow your business using advertising on the Internet, you should pay close attention to these developments, keep ethics counsel on retainer, and stay involved in and aware of the activities of your regulators. It’s getting tricky out there: pay attention.

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  • Mark Merenda

    Lee, I’ve had it happen to me, only in my case my competitors were targeting my name alone. See my blog post here:http://smartblog.smartmarketingnow.com/2011/06/alls-fair-or-dirty-pool/ and then again here: http://smartblog.smartmarketingnow.com/2011/06/dirtier-pool/

  • Mark Merenda

    Lee, I’ve had it happen to me, only in my case my competitors were targeting my name alone. See my blog post here:http://smartblog.smartmarketingnow.com/2011/06/alls-fair-or-dirty-pool/ and then again here: http://smartblog.smartmarketingnow.com/2011/06/dirtier-pool/

  • http://www.legalpracticepro.com/ Jay S. Fleischman

    Lee, there was a court decision last year that allowed someone to buy AdWords using a competitor’s name.  It wasn’t a lawyer, but the situation is exactly the same.  The NC position is a good one, but I’m not sure it would stand up to court scrutiny.

  • http://www.legalpracticepro.com/ Jay S. Fleischman

    Lee, there was a court decision last year that allowed someone to buy AdWords using a competitor’s name.  It wasn’t a lawyer, but the situation is exactly the same.  The NC position is a good one, but I’m not sure it would stand up to court scrutiny.

  • Mark Merenda

    The details: http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/123509294.html

    • http://divorcediscourse.com Lee Rosen

      Mark,

      Thanks for sharing the story.

      Lee

  • Mark Merenda

    The details: http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/123509294.html

    • http://divorcediscourse.com Lee Rosen

      Mark,

      Thanks for sharing the story.

      Lee

  • http://www.fabriciuslaw.com/ Erich Fabricius

    I’m wondering if the proposed FEO would stand to be applied to non-traditional search engine contexts. For example, on a lawyer profile site, e.g. AVVO, if you search on a known lawyer name, you’ll get that lawyer’s profile plus ads for other attorneys practicing in similar fields of law.

    • http://divorcediscourse.com Lee Rosen

      I think it would apply, however, I don’t think it’s the result that matters, just the actions of the lawyer that matter. If you didn’t target the attorney’s name then it’s hard to see how you’d be subject to discipline. It’s going, however, to be very challenging for regulators to sort through the grievances.
      Lee

  • http://www.fabriciuslaw.com/ Erich Fabricius

    I’m wondering if the proposed FEO would stand to be applied to non-traditional search engine contexts. For example, on a lawyer profile site, e.g. AVVO, if you search on a known lawyer name, you’ll get that lawyer’s profile plus ads for other attorneys practicing in similar fields of law.

    • http://divorcediscourse.com Lee Rosen

      I think it would apply, however, I don’t think it’s the result that matters, just the actions of the lawyer that matter. If you didn’t target the attorney’s name then it’s hard to see how you’d be subject to discipline. It’s going, however, to be very challenging for regulators to sort through the grievances.
      Lee

  • http://twitter.com/JamesHartLaw Jim Hart

    I find it interesting that the NC Bar is also the only bar in the country (that I know of) that requires lawyers to register “trade names”.  I’m in the process of appealing a decision to decline to register a url trade name, not because the url was misleading, but because it is too close to the name of another url that had previously been registered. IMO too much regulation by the bar is not always a good thing.  

    • http://divorcediscourse.com Lee Rosen

      Shhhhhhhh! They might hear you.

      Lee

  • jameshartlaw

    I find it interesting that the NC Bar is also the only bar in the country (that I know of) that requires lawyers to register “trade names”.  I’m in the process of appealing a decision to decline to register a url trade name, not because the url was misleading, but because it is too close to the name of another url that had previously been registered. IMO too much regulation by the bar is not always a good thing.  

    • http://divorcediscourse.com Lee Rosen

      Shhhhhhhh! They might hear you.

      Lee

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Lee Rosen

Lee Rosen has practiced family law for more than twenty years. With four offices, Rosen Law Firm serves Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Rosen served as the Law Practice Management Editor of the ABA Family Advocate for more than a decade and received the ABA James Keane Award for excellence in eLawyering. He served as Chair of the Law Practice Management Section of the North Carolina Bar Association, is a frequent speaker and is often sought out by the media as a source of family law insight and commentary.