May I List My Practice “Specialty” on LinkedIn?

I sure wouldn’t. The New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics advised in a Summer 2013 ethics opinion that a lawyer may not list the lawyer’s services under the “heading ‘Specialties’ on a social media site” unless the lawyer is officially certified by an approved organization or authority. See NYSBA, Op. 972 (Jun. 26, 2013). Said the committee:

A lawyer or law firm listed on a social media site may, under [NY Rules of Professional Conduct] Rule 7.4(a), identify one or more areas of law practice. But to list those areas under a heading of “Specialties” would constitute a claim that the lawyer or law firm “is a specialist or specializes in a particular field of law” and thus, absent certification as provided in [NY] Rule 7.4(c), would violate [NY] Rule 7.4(a).

Id. Unfortunately, much the same might happen in Louisiana. Louisiana Rule 7.2(c)(5) provides that: “a lawyer shall not state or imply that the lawyer is ‘certified,’ ‘board certified,’ an ‘expert’ or a ‘specialist'” unless the lawyer is officially certified. Oddly enough, the Louisiana Office of Disciplinary Counsel has aggressively pursued Louisiana lawyers who have inadvertently and harmlessly used the word “specialist” on their websites. See, e.g., In re Laughlin, LADB No. 12-DB-08.

The clear purpose of the Louisiana rule is to prohibit false claims of official certification. Unfortunately for Louisiana lawyers, however, the corresponding ABA Model Rule is clearer in this regard. Model Rule 7.4(c) expressly permits a lawyer to state that the lawyer “specializes” in an area of practice–provided that the lawyer does not “state or imply that the lawyer is certified as a specialist in a particular field of law” without formal certification, and provided that the statement is not false or misleading. See ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 7.4(c) (emphasis added); see id. cmt. 1 (“A lawyer is generally permitted to state that the lawyer is a ‘specialist,’ practices a ‘specialty,’ or ‘specializes in’ particular fields,” provided that the statement is not false or misleading). Black’s Law Dictionary similarly defines the term “specialist” to refer only to “a lawyer who has been board-certified in a specific filed of law.” See Black’s Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009).

Most lawyers who state that they “specialize” in certain a practice area don’t intend to suggest that the Louisiana Board of Legal Specialization, or any other organization, has formally certified them as an “expert” or a “specialist” in a field of practice. On the contrary, most simply use the term “specialize” in its nontechnical sense: “to concentrate one’s efforts in a special activity, field, or practice.” See Merriam-Webster Dictionary (def. “specialized”). Such innocuous statements are permitted by the Louisiana Rules, which provide that a lawyer may “communicate the fact that the lawyer does or does not practice in particular fields of law.” See Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 7.2(c)(5); see also ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 7.4(a).

Nevertheless, given the unusually aggressive stance ODC has taken on this minor issue, make sure that the words “certified,” “expert” and “specialist” appear no where on your website or other promotional materials.