May a Lawyer Incentivize Favorable Online Reviews?

Online legal directories (such as Avvo) permit clients to review and rate their lawyers. Likewise, innumerable social-media sites (like Facebook, YouTube, and others) allow users to “connect” with lawyers and law firms, and to “like,” “follow,” or “subscribe” to them and their posts. May a lawyer offer an incentive to social media users and clients to rate, connect or otherwise interact with lawyer’s social media presence? In an October 2019, ethics opinion, the North Carolina State Bar said “no.” See N.C. State Bar Assoc., Offering Incentive to Engage with Law Practice’s Social Networking Sites (Oct. 25, 2019).

A lawyer asked the North Carolina Bar Association whether it was professionally appropriate “to offer a prize incentive to anyone who connects or interacts with any of his social media platforms. All users who connect or interact with Lawyer’s law practice social media account will be entered into a drawing for a prize.” See id. In answering the inquiry in the negative, the opinion concluded that offering such an incentive for providing online reviews would violate two standards of conduct.

First, such an incentive would violate the principle that “lawyers may not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services.” A client’s “like” of a lawyer on social media is akin to a recommendation of the lawyer’s services.

Second, a review prompted by an undisclosed incentive would be an improper “false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.” Said the opinion:

The purpose behind Rule 7.2(b)’s prohibition on offering something of value in exchange for recommending services is to ensure that recommendations for a lawyer’s services are based upon actual experiences or legitimate opinions of the lawyer’s service, rather than financial incentive. The displayed “like” of a law practice may indicate some prior experience with the law practice or the personnel associated with the practice upon which the user’s “liking” of the practice is based.

See id.

This opinion provides good advice. Lawyers can–and should–have a visible presence on the Internet in general, and on social media in particular. Lawyers can–and should–encourage satisfied clients to “like, share, follow, or otherwise interact” with such social media accounts. But to comply with the rules, lawyers simply can’t pay their clients or others for such positive endorsements.

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