Rule 7.4 of the Model Rules speaks to the use of the word “Specialist” and “Specialization” in certain areas of law. Different States have different ways of interpreting this, but based on my research, most States have taken Rule 7.4 exactly as it’s formulated by the ABA.
“Lawyers shall not state or imply that they are a Certified Specialist in a particular field of law unless the Lawyer has been certified as a Specialist by an organized that has been approved by an appropriate State authority, or that has been accredited by the American Bar Association.” — (Excerpt from Rule 7.4, Model Rules).
When you are describe yourself as a “Specialist,” you need to make sure that the State recognizes the certifying body. If there is no certifying body, then you should not use the word.
There are instances where a law firm might recklessly, carelessly, or unwittingly describe themselves as a “Specialist,” such as, “I’m a Criminal Defense Specialist,” or “I specialize in family law.” But, unless you’re actually certified, you’ll want to get that word off your website and out of your marketing materials.
There are different ways of expressing the same idea. For instance, you can say “We focus on divorce law,” or “Our law practice is exclusive to criminal defense.”
Besides “Specialist,” there are other adjectives that you may use to describe yourself that may be seen as “misleading” under your local rules. In Ohio, for example, Rule 7.1 prohibits communications that are “false, misleading or non-verifiable,” such as saying you are the “best,” “cheapest,” or “most effective.”
The use of the word “Expert,” is a restricted word in many States, e.g., Iowa, Mississippi, Ohio and Virginia. Other States like California, haven’t spoken to its use yet, as nearly as I can tell. To be safe, when marketing lawyers, I specifically avoid the word “Expert” in favor of some other adjective that will get the same idea across.
Tennessee is particularly restrictive on qualifiers that they see as misleading. In a 2004 formal opinion from their Ethics Committee, they conclude,
“Lawyers may not claim that they are ‘Number One,’ ‘One of The Best,’ ‘Better,’ the ‘Top,’ ‘Excellent, ’‘Qualified,’ ‘Highly Qualified,’ ‘Experienced,’ ‘Reputable,’ ‘Efficient,’ or ‘Preferred,’ as such claims are unverifiable.”
As another example, Virginia, says in a 2001 formal opinion:
“Lawyers may not claim to be an expert or to have expertise.”
Of note, Florida has made some curious changes and additions to the Model Rules. If you practice law in Florida, please do your research before you rely on anything you read here.
I would emphasize that local restrictions apply not just to the content of your website, but equally to the content of your social media, how you describe yourself at AVVO and Yelp, your advertising, printed material and anywhere else your content may be; to the extent that you have control over it. And, of course, as with everything else we cover in our blog, please check your local rules to see how they have modified Rule 7.4.