Monday, May 9, 2011

Overselling Draws Reprimand

The South Carolina Supreme Court has issued a public reprimand of an attorney for misleading advertising.

The allegations:

Allegation A

In his advertising materials, Respondent included false and misleading statements regarding:  his experience and his associates' experience; the firm's areas of practice and past case results; the assignment of cases among the attorneys in the firm; the firm's reputation; the firm's office locations; and the foreign language ability of the firm's employees.

In terms of his experience, Respondent included a statement on his website and in his firm brochure that he had "worked in the legal environment for over twenty years."  Although Respondent had worked as a clerk for a law firm while in college and law school, he had only actually practiced law for about seven years when these materials were disseminated.

Respondent also overstated the experience of his associates on his website.  At the time the website was published, the firm's two associates had been admitted for less than one year, yet the website referred to the firm's "numerous trained and experienced attorneys."  The website also included phrases describing the firm's attorneys as "thoroughly familiar with the local court system", "highly skilled", possessing "wide-ranging knowledge", and having a "deep personal knowledge of the courts, judges, and other courthouse personnel."

Regarding the firm's areas of practice and the types of cases handled by the attorneys, Respondent's website included a statement that "our attorneys handle all types of legal matters in state and federal court in South Carolina" when, in fact, that was not the case.  The website also stated that the firm represents clients "in every level of the South Carolina state court system", which was not true.

Respondent's website also stated that "[e]ach attorney with Coastal Law Firm focuses his or her practice exclusively on one area of the law [thus] each attorney is deeply familiar with the law and procedural issues related to their clients' cases."  However, Respondent listed at least twenty-seven distinct practice areas on his website even though only three attorneys (including himself) were employed with the firm.

Respondent's website further stated that the firm had served clients in constitutional law, civil rights, ethics and professional responsibility, and toxic torts.  No lawyer in the firm had actually handled any matters in those areas; however, they were willing to accept such cases.

Additionally, Respondent's website contained a page entitled "Consumer Protection and Products Liability Lawyer."  The page claimed that the firm has "a history of winning [products liability] cases" and that it employs "defective products liability lawyers" who "understand how to deal with both corporations and insurance companies and have a history of winning cases for our clients."  On another page on the website, Respondent stated that "At Coastal Law, our . . . product recall lawyers understand what is required in filing a medical injuries claim for manufacturer negligence in producing a hazardous drug or product leading to a dangerous product recall.  We can aggressively pursue your legal rights against negligent corporations that may have introduced a product that damaged your health."  Neither Respondent nor any lawyer in his law firm had ever handled a products liability matter.

In terms of the firm's office locations, some of Respondent's telephone book advertisements stated that the firm had offices in Georgia and Florida.  At the time, Respondent had a referral arrangement with firms located in those states and had plans to merge his firm with another South Carolina lawyer, who had offices in Georgia and Florida.  Respondent's firm, however, never actually operated offices in those states.

With respect to the foreign language ability of the firm's employees, Respondent's advertising materials included the phrase "We Speak Spanish" written in Spanish.  None of the lawyers in the firm spoke Spanish.  Only part of the time when these advertisements were published did the firm employ a staff member who spoke Spanish.  The inclusion of "We Speak Spanish" in Respondent's advertising, particularly at times when no one in the office spoke Spanish, was misleading as it implied that the firm employed Spanish- speaking attorneys.

As to the firm's reputation, Respondent's website included a number of statements that could not be factually substantiated such as the firm "developed a reputation over the years for outstanding results" and the firm is "recognized as an established, experienced, and reputable local Myrtle Beach law firm."  Although Respondent admitted at the hearing that the inclusion of this language was a "mistake" as his law firm had not been identified as a leading law firm or received special recognition, he claimed it was never his "intention to deceive."

Allegation B

In his advertising materials, Respondent improperly compared his law firm's services to other law firms in ways that could not be factually substantiated with statements such as "best attorney available", "most effective legal services", and "best services possible." Respondent acknowledged that it was inappropriate to make these comparisons to other lawyers.

Allegation C

Although Respondent filed his telephone book advertisements with the Commission on Lawyer Conduct in compliance with Rule 7.2(b), he admitted that he did not do so with his website or firm brochure.

Allegation D

Respondent admitted that some of his telephone book advertisements listed only the law firm name and not the name of a lawyer that was responsible for the content of the advertisements.

Allegation E

Respondent admitted in his Answer that his firm brochure characterized the quality of his firm's legal services for criminal defense clients as "tough criminal defense representation."  He also admitted that his website characterized his firm's attorneys as:  "highly skilled at obtaining bonds for their clients"; "dedicated attorneys who provide excellent legal advice"; "maintaining a high degree of professionalism" in real estate matters; and "intelligent", "competent", and "full service."

Allegation F

Respondent admitted that his telephone book advertising and website included statements regarding contingent fee arrangements, including the following statements:  "no fee until you receive money"; "no fees up front to handle your personal injury or wrongful death case"; and "your cost is nothing unless we win."  Respondent, however, failed to disclose whether the client would be liable for any expenses in addition to the fee or whether the percentage of the contingency fee would be computed before deducting the expenses.

Allegation G

Respondent's website referred to the firm's "expertise" in personal injury matters and the firm's "expert nursing home litigation advisors."  The website and firm brochures also stated that the firm "specializes in several areas of law."  Respondent, however, admitted that no one in his firm was a certified specialist in any area of law.

The attorney admitted the allegations and expressed remorse. (Mike Frisch)

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