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Florida Settlement Allows Lawyers to Use Online Directories, Social Networks

Nov. 17, 2009  

Florida Settlement Allows Lawyers to Use Online Directories, Social Networks

Public Citizen Argued That Florida Bar Rules Banning Lawyer Use of Web Sites Was Unconstitutional

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Florida Bar has agreed to exempt online lawyer directories such as Avvo.com and Linkedin.com from its rules prohibiting client testimonials, statements of past results and comments on quality of services, settling a case brought by Public Citizen on behalf of a Boca Raton, Fla. attorney.

In the settlement, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on Monday, the Florida Bar agreed to treat lawyer profiles on directory sites as information requested by the client, which is not subject to the same restrictions as unsolicited ads. The Bar will also review its lawyer advertising rules regarding Web sites maintained by lawyers and recommend changes to the Florida Supreme Court.

“Reviews from past clients, whether positive or negative, can tell consumers a lot about a lawyer,” said Public Citizen attorney Greg Beck, who represented plaintiff Joel B. Rothman in the lawsuit. “This settlement is a victory for the free speech rights of attorneys and makes it far easier for consumers to make a decision on legal representation.”
Rothman is also represented by Bruce Rogow, a lawyer and professor of constitutional law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.

The Florida Bar prohibits lawyers from advertising client testimonials and the results of past cases. The Bar told Rothman that his use of Avvo.com violated its rules. Rothman had asked several former clients to post reviews of his work on the site, but he had no control over what the clients wrote. When the Bar told Rothman that the reviews were prohibited, Avvo.com refused Rothman’s request to remove the reviews from the site.

The Bar’s rules not only violate Rothman’s First Amendment right to engage in truthful commercial advertising on the Internet, but also restrict competition by making it more difficult for consumers to make informed choices on legal representation, Beck said.

Public Citizen had asked the court to declare the Florida Bar’s advertising rules unconstitutional.

Public Citizen successfully sued New York disciplinary authorities over that state’s advertising rules. The trial court agreed that the New York rules were unconstitutional, and that case is on appeal. Public Citizen also has filed a similar suit in Louisiana. There, the trial court disagreed that the rules were unconstitutional, and Public Citizen has appealed.