New ABA Opinion Provides Lawyers With Guidance On Website Content and Visitor Inquiries

A new ethics opinion by the American Bar Association, Formal Opinion 10-457 (Lawyer Websites), identifies some of the ethical obligations that lawyers should address in considering the content and features of their websites. The major recommendations which I culled from the ethics opinion follow:

(1) Information about Lawyers, their Law Firm, or their Clients.
No website communication may be false or misleading, or may omit facts such that the resulting statement is materially misleading. Thus, a lawyer may include accurate information that is not misleading about the lawyer and the lawyer’s law firm, including contact information and information about the law practice. Specific information identifying current or former clients or the scope of their matters also may be disclosed, with consent.

(2) Information about the Law.
Lawyers may offer accurate legal information that does not materially mislead readers. To avoid misleading readers, lawyers should make sure that legal information is accurate and current. (That is, websites providing legal information should fully identify the provider of content on each page of website, as well as dates on which the content was last reviewed). The ABA also recommends that the website warn visitors that the legal information provided is general and should not be relied on as legal advice, and explain that legal advice cannot be given without full consideration of all relevant information relating to the visitor’s individual situation.

(3) Website Visitor Inquiries.
Inquiries from a website visitor about legal advice or representation may cause the inquirer to become a “prospective client,” imposing a duty of confidentiality on the lawyer. The duty arises when the inquirer discusses with a lawyer the possibility of forming an client-lawyer relationship. Therefore, if, for example, a lawyer website specifically requests or invites submission of information concerning the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter on a conveniently-provided website electronic form, a website visitor will become a “prospective client” when the visitor submits the requested information. The ABA suggests that the lawyer provide appropriate warnings on the website (mentioned below) which can prevent the visitor from becoming a “prospective client.”

(4) Warnings Intended to Limit, Condition, or Disclaim a Lawyer’s Obligations to Website Visitors.
Warnings or cautionary statements on a lawyer’s website that are reasonably understandable, properly placed, and not misleading may effectively limit, condition, or disclaim a lawyer’s obligation to a website reader.

UPDATED ON SEPTEMBER 30, 2010: From TheLaw.Com – DISSENT BREAKS OUT OVER ABA CHARGES FOR ETHICS OPINIONS. The American Bar Association is under fire from attorneys who argue that the organization should stop charging fees for access to its ethics opinions. Although the ABA has maintained copyrights to its opinions since at least 1945, the issue came to the fore earlier this week when the ABA had a technical problem with Carolyn Elefant, a Washington, D.C., solo, posting a link to a just-issued ABA ethics opinion about online attorney marketing. Elefant responded with an open letter on her blog,, complaining about a general lack of access to ABA opinions. The post set off a rash of blog comments and e-mails on an ABA listserv, most of which were critical of the fees charged to access opinions more than a year old.