Ethics in Brief

Ethics in Brief is designed to present ethical issues that practitioners might well face on a daily basis. It is a service of the Legal Ethics Committee of the San Diego County Bar Association for SDCBA members.


Social Media, LinkedIn, and Attorney Advertising

Harry’s law firm was trying to increase its “contemporary” exposure to potential clients.  In short, they were exploring social media.  A long-time ABA member, he saw a recent article in ABA Techshow titled “‘Hire’ LinkedIn for referrals, marketing your firm, lawyers advise.”1  Harry had ignored the LinkedIn train, but it had been around just long enough for him to start to feel comfortable climbing aboard.  Besides, the ABA seemed okay with it.  No problem.  Right?

Maybe.  LinkedIn, like most forms of social media, may be an acceptable way for attorneys to get their names out there.  But social media postings can qualify as attorney advertising.2  And like any public description of an attorney and his or her practice, the attorney must understand what that description says.  More importantly, the attorney must ensure that those descriptions are not misleading.3

LinkedIn includes numerous descriptive features that permit a LinkedIn member to describe herself succinctly to a wide audience.  A short, punchy description is usually recommended, and that is usually better in the business world—but the business world at large is not subjected to attorney ethical regulations.  Thus, an attorney must take care in describing the attorney’s practice and accomplishments.  And, once an attorney is on social media, he or she is not always fully in control of how his or her social media profile is displayed.

For example, LinkedIn created problems for many of its attorney members when it included the default category, “Specialties,” under its user profiles.  Many states concluded that a listing under “Specialties” implied that the attorney was a certified specialist in that area.4   After hearing back from its attorney members, LinkedIn eventually changed the category to “Skills and Endorsements.”5  In California, attorneys may indicate their “fields of practice, limitation of practice, or specialization,” as long as the message as a whole is not misleading.6  Thus, California attorneys were probably in the clear ethically—although an attorney claiming a “specialty” may be held to a higher standard of care.7  Moreover, because the social media platform is not under the attorney’s control, and how the attorney’s profile is displayed could change at any point, an attorney on LinkedIn (or any form of social media) should regularly review his or her profile as it is seen by the public to ensure that the information in the profile, and the way that information is displayed, is not misleading.

Which brings up the next area of concern:  Endorsements.  LinkedIn’s “Endorsements” is an interactive feature in which one LinkedIn member can “endorse” the skills of their contacts with the click of a button.  LinkedIn actively solicits members to endorse each other’s skills.  In practice, this becomes a type of quid pro quo; one person endorses a contact’s skills in certain areas, and that contact is generally expected to return the favor.  As a result, a member may receive endorsements from many individuals, many or most of whom may not have any basis for endorsing a particular skill.  As a result, the endorsements may become misleading.8

To avoid this possibility, an attorney can “hide” specific endorsements if the attorney feels that the endorsement may be misleading.  However, keep in mind that the endorsement is displayed until it is hidden.  Thus, if electing this route, the attorney must commit to reviewing Endorsements as they come in.  A better option may be to turn off the Endorsements feature altogether; it avoids potential problems.

Social media can be a powerful tool for an attorney to gain exposure within the wider business community.  But as with any other communication that may qualify as advertising, the attorney must carefully consider the message he or she sends.  In that regard, social media is similar to other forms of advertising that attorneys have been successfully, and ethically, using for years.  And that should bring everyone some comfort.

– Leah Strickland

**No portion of this summary is intended to constitute legal advice. Be sure to perform independent research and analysis. Any views expressed are those of the author only and not of the SDCBA or its Legal Ethics Committee.**


1     Victor Li, “ ‘Hire’ LinkedIn for referrals, marketing your firm, lawyers advise,” ABA Techshow, April 16, 2015, available at http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/
hire_linkedin_for_referrals_marketing_your_firm_lawyers_advise.

2     See California State Bar Formal Opinion No. 2012-186.

3     Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 6157.1, 6158.

4     See New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics, Formal Opinion 972 (June 2013). 

5     See, e.g., Update:  Complying with Bar rules on LinkedIn may be easier than thought, The Florida Bar News, January 1, 2014, available at http://www.floridabar.org/.

6     Business & Professions Code § 6158.2(b).

7     Wright v. Williams (1975) 47 Cal.App.3d 802.

8     See Bus. & Prof. Code § 6158.