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Legal Ethics and Competitive Keyword Marketing

competitive-keyword-marketingSearch engine optimization (SEO) is all about being at the top of the organic results of a targeted search engine query. However, instead of struggling to get to the top of the organic results, you can skip the line by coughing up the money to buy a pay-per-click (PPC) advertisement, instead. Doing so labels your site as an advertisement, which might not be as effective as it sounds, but it might still be worth it, depending on your situation.

But if you’re going the PPC route, you may have had another thought: Why only buy the targeted keywords that my firm is out to get? Why not buy targeted keywords that my competitor wants?

Competitive Keyword Advertising

It’s a simple thing, really. You run Smith Law, a boutique white collar defense firm, but Jones Law – some run-of-the-mill criminal defense outfit – is above you in the organic listings. They’re your main competitor, and they’re sucking business away from you – including clients that you could serve far better, with your expertise.

So you decide to pay money for PPC ads. But your targeted keywords aren’t for queries like “white collar defense” or “Smith Law” – they’re for “Jones Law.”

Now, whenever someone searches for “Jones Law,” they see an ad for Smith Law, right there at the top.

Enter: The Field of Legal Ethics

Marketing your law firm online implicates your state’s rules of professional conduct. As every attorney knows, each state has its own set of them, they’re all slightly different, and violating an ethical rule can put your legal practice in jeopardy.

Now, competitive keyword marketing has created a state split, with North Carolina and Texas adopting conflicting interpretations of their version of ABA Model Rule 8.4(c).

North Carolina Doesn’t Allow Competitive Keyword Marketing

North Carolina’s Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(c), which is identical to the ABA’s Model Rules, states that it is “professional misconduct for a lawyer to… engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.” In the 2010 Formal Ethics Opinion 14, which was adopted in 2012 by the state bar, it was deemed that “dishonest” conduct included that which “shows a lack of fairness or straightforwardness.” Competitive keyword advertising, the opinion concludes without argument, is neither of these, and therefore violates the Rules.

Texas Allows Competitive Keyword Marketing

In a conflicting interpretation, Texas has read its own version of the ABA Model Rules to allow for competitive keyword advertising.

In Opinion 661, the Professional Ethics Committee for the State Bar of Texas looked not only at its version of 8.4(c), but also at Rules 7.01 (which prohibits holding oneself out as a partner or associate untruthfully) and 7.02 (prohibiting “false or misleading communication[s] about the qualifications or the services of any lawyer or firm”). They then deemed that competitive keyword marketing would not, “in normal circumstances,” violate their rules of ethical conduct. However, if this advertising was done in a misleading way, such that it “would lead a reasonable person to believe that Lawyer A and Lawyer B are associated in some way,” then it would violate Rule 7.02(a).

The Texas opinion, unlike Florida’s, supported its conclusion by claiming that reasonable internet users understand that there are advertisements in the search engine results page and that competitive keyword marketing is widely used in other fields of business and industries.

Rules of Professional Conduct and Legal Blogging

This state split regarding the legality of competitive keyword marketing is just one example of how your law firm’s online marketing endeavors can run into complex regulations. The professional legal bloggers at Myers Freelance understand the minefield that is the legal advertising world, and can help you navigate it safely while still accomplishing your purposes. Contact us online to get started.