Without Dates, You Intentionally Deceive (Update)

The internet may not be the source of fabulous wealth and prestige for lawyers that some claim, but it is an incredibly useful tool to learn about people. Whether for law enforcement to learn about suspects or people seeking legal help to learn about lawyers, the web provides an amazing resource to gather information that would otherwise be unavailable or bound in large, brown books that exist only in corner offices. 

When someone expresses an interesting subjective view in the blawgosphere, I regularly check out who they are.  It matters to me whether the opinion comes from someone who has been a lawyer for a month or twenty years. It matters whether they are a prosecutor or defense lawyer. Or cop. Or defendant. Or civil lawyer. They may think their opinion matters regardless, but the fact is that the opinion of a knowledgeable person weighs more heavily than someone lacking any basis. That’s how opinions work.

In the course of checking people out, one particularly disturbing issue keeps cropping up. The claim of “experience.”  It has become de rigueur for young lawyers to include bios on their websites that announce their law schools and bar admissions, but omit the dates. Elsewhere, they invariably claim to be “experienced,” sometimes fleshed out with wild claims like having won thousands of cases even before admission to the bar.  It’s all part of creating their personal brand.

The reason for these omission is plain. Young lawyers want to promote themselves without disclosing that they are new to the practice of law.  Marketing advice is clear: hide the negatives and bang the positives.  Create the appearance of qualification and competence without disclosing harmful material facts.  The way to do this is to conceal anything that might reflect poorly on you and undermine the free-wheeling use of subjective puffery.

Experienced, Competent, Aggressive

Any lawyer can put this on his website, and because each reflects a wholly subjective claim, who could dispute it?  In a post at Avvo’s Lawyernomics, a legal marketing blog, Josh King writes about the Pennsylvania interpretation that precludes use of subjective claims such as “experienced.”

There’s a curious little nugget in the Pennsylvania rules governing attorney advertising; under the state’s interpretation of Professional Conduct Rule 7.1(c), attorneys are barred from using “inherently subjective” terms such as “experienced” and “competent” in advertising their services. The fear, such as it goes, is that such terms are difficult for consumers to confirm or measure. (Never mind that we consumers have some passing familiarity with the uses of hype in advertising.)

It’s true that consumers are familiar with the use of hype in advertising. Every laundry detergent claims to make white’s whiter.  Is this the bar by which lawyer’s measure their deceit?
This peculiar rule is an anachronism today, and observed in the breach, if a cursory review of Pennsylvania law firm websites, blogs, and internet ads is anything to go on. It’s also inane, paternalistic, and a holdover from the pre- Bates v. Arizona days when attorney advertising was completely banned in most places.

One gets the feeling that Josh doesn’t favor this rule. No doubt he’s correct to say that it’s widely ignored, particularly given that most lawyers consider the internet a truth-free zone where it’s fair to make any claim that could potentially get you business.  If anything goes, then it is indeed inane and paternalistic for state bars to prohibit subjective claims of greatness. After all, no lawyer is going to persuade clients to knock down his door by writing “I’ve never handled a family court case, but I would like to and would be very happy if you would be my first, and pay me for the pleasure.”  Not good marketing.

But here is where it goes completely off the tracks:

Some might say this is okay–that the world hardly needs another attorney advertising their “experienced, competent, aggressive” representation. But the overall effect is a chilling of all information from lawyers to consumers, and a lessening of transparency in what is already the most opaque of professions.

Does a prohibition of deceptive or subjective claims by lawyers produce a chilling effect, “lessening transparency”?  Josh’s concern is that when lawyers aren’t clear where the line is, beyond which they will be subject to discipline, they shy away from the line and provide less information to consumers.  Superficially, it makes some sense.

The problem, upon closer scrutiny, is that the line only comes into play when lawyers are being deceptive or using puffery, subjective claims that range from the meaningless to the intentionally false.  This isn’t transparency. This is dishonest.  And if one wants to fix the problem of opaqueness in the legal profession, the solution isn’t deceit, puffery and omission of material facts, but accuracy and honesty.

The one thing that stands out above all others are lawyers who omit dates from their websites and blogs. This is wrong, and whenever I see “Harvard Law School” without a date, it tells me that this lawyer is concealing a simple, basic fact.  Concealment is hardly transparency. 

It’s no crime to be a new lawyer, and indeed, many clients will prefer a new lawyer who will likely charge significantly lower fees and perhaps show greater interest and exuberance in their representation.  The adage, an old fool is worse than a young fool comes to mind, offering the new lawyer the opportunity to use his lack of experience to his advantage. There is nothing wrong with capitalizing on your strengths, even if those strengths don’t involve many years of experience.

What cannot be done is to omit the material information that would allow clients to reach their own conclusion as to whether a lawyer is sufficiently experienced.  This is deceptive and unethical. Note that it may not result in discipline, the bogeyman Josh fears, but disciplinary rules provide the absolute minimum level of conduct demanded of a lawyer. That conduct skirts the edge of discipline doesn’t make it ethical, but merely not subject to discipline. Is the best that can be truthfully said of you that you haven’t been disbarred?

It’s time to end the deception. We are not laundry detergent and we can hold ourselves to a higher standard than toilet tissue puffery.  If you include your law school and bar admission on your website, include the date. Telling the truth matters. Not omitting the facts you don’t want clients to know matters as well.

It’s highly unlikely that puffery, deception and material omission on the web will get you disbarred.  There is no lack of people who will denigrate honesty and integrity in the name of self-promotion, calling it inane and paternalistic. 

So it’s entirely up to each lawyer to decide whether they prefer to tell the truth about themselves or puff, deceive and omit.  Your call, but understand that some of us do care, and we are watching. If you don’t include dates, I then know you intentionally deceive. That’s your brand.

Update: At Lawyerist, a wealth of comments by baby lawyers “explaining” why there’s nothing wrong with concealing their date of admission. The comments are fascinating if deeply disturbing, and pretty much take a shot at every conceivable way of wiggling out of responsibility. 

At at the Unwashed Advocate, a visual illustration of the issue. 

35 thoughts on “Without Dates, You Intentionally Deceive (Update)

  1. Alex Bunin

    Works the other way too. I got a resume the other day from a lawyer who was obviously pretty well at the end of his career, but he left out any dates that might suggest he was just looking for a place to “retire.”

  2. SHG

    Point taken. While I haven’t seen any of that on the web, the omission of material facts is red flag no matter where on the experience spectrum someone falls.

  3. Jordan Rushie

    It’s funny, and perhaps ironic, how the best actual practice advice isn’t from #lmatech or on Solo Practice University, but it comes from those who have been successful lawyers for more than a minute.

    Ask a marketer, and they’ll tell you to hide your inexperience because that’s how you get clients in the door. To a marketer, that’s all that matters, getting them in the door.

    Ask a successful lawyer, and they’ll tell you hiding your inexperience a bad idea, because (a) your clients will be able to tell you’re inexperienced when you don’t know which table to sit at in the courtroom and they won’t trust you anymore; and (b) if the representation goes downhill, or the result is bad, the last thing you want is a client saying you mislead them into hiring you. And while a few clients might say “Thanks for your time, but I’m going to hire a more experienced lawyer” saving yourself the headache was far worth whatever fee you would have made by misleading the client.

    Your post illustrates the difference between lawyers and marketers, and perhaps people should consider where they get their advice from.

  4. SHG

    But bear in mind, even when honesty and integrity offer no practice benefit, they are still fundamental to what we, as lawyers, do.  There just isn’t any spin that makes deception acceptable for lawyers, all the marketing advice to the contrary notwithstanding. 

  5. REvers

    Honesty and integrity always offer a practice benefit, just maybe not immediately. When I was a baby lawyer, the advice I got from the guys I respected was always “Your reputation is all you have. Don’t screw it up.”

    And then I started paying attention to the lawyers who didn’t have quite so much honesty and/or integrity. Neither they nor their clients tended to turn out all that well.


    You say “There just isn’t any spin that makes deception acceptable for lawyers.”

    Except that it works, and in today’s world, if it works, it’s acceptable – to those who spin and those who watch the success of the spinner.

    My favorite spinner, Adrian Dayton, set the example. He started his social media guru career trying to get Big Law clients to hire him with a bio that said he worked on a 450 million dollar deal. After some prodding, he admitted it was really just document review.

    But it worked. Big Law hired him. Now that he has some Big Law clients, he doesn’t mention that anymore. But he used that spin to build his “career.”

    It was acceptable to him, and the others that know about it, most of them say “hey, if it works…”

  7. SHG

    That it works doesn’t make it acceptable, just effective.  Lots of lies are effective, but still lies.


    It’s not acceptable to those with ethics. People like Adrian don’t know the difference between “acceptable” and “effective.” To people like that, if it works, it’s both.

  9. John David Galt

    As a lay consumer, even if a lawyer said something (truthful) about his experience, it might not be helpful. What I’d like to be able to see is reviews (good and bad) by former clients. Or maybe just his W-L record, like a football team. 🙂

  10. SHG

    A lot of clients would like reviews or a W/L record. It simplifies a complex analysis, and makes picking a lawyer easy as pie. They also love ratings, awards (like my  recently bestowed “Fluttershy Friendship is Magic Award for Best Dressed Lawyer” from the Royal Order of Bronies), and, bizarrely, media appearances.

    Each, of course, is a deeply flawed metric for choosing a lawyer. But they would make it simpler.

  11. Keith Lee

    I’ve always found that truth is powerful. The most forceful and persuasive words, ideas, people, etc. I have experienced are almost universally true or genuine.

    Which is why when I started a “blawg,” I intentionally made it about developing as a law student/new lawyer. Hammering out posts on some area of law with which I have only a passing familiarity with from law school would have been duplicative at best.
    Far better for me to write about my “growing pains” and developing what I believe to be best practices. And for what it’s worth, I think it’s worked out pretty well for me.

  12. Josh King

    Scott, I’m fundamentally opposed to stupid, unconstitutional rules that make lawyers wring their hands over what they can and can’t say to potential clients. I talk to lawyers every day whose reaction to these rules is to clam up and provide LESS information.

    But let’s not conflate my criticism of these rules for advocacy of an attitude of “anything goes.” We at Avvo are some of the loudest proponents of bringing more transparency to the legal profession.

    And your point about dates of admission (which I agree with) is an interesting twist on this. Avvo publishes dates of admission in its profiles; indeed, it’s a requirement for our algorithm to work. When we were launching in one large state, the bar listings did not contain dates of admission. Turns out the Young Lawyers Division had lobbied the bar to keep that info off of the public directory. We got that state to change its policy, but a handful of states continue this shameful practice. It’s ironic, then, that these are the same regulators who make lawyers labor under vague rules relating to client communications.

  13. SHG

    What’s so incredibly difficult about telling the truth, and not concealing the truth when it’s inconvenient? 

    On the other hand, what’s transparent about puffery? It’s only hard when someone is trying to win the race to the bottom, Josh. Truth is easy. Any lawyer who clams up is a lawyer who was about to deceive. Just as well.

  14. Steve

    I’ve just finished reading all the comments over at the Lawyerist. Whew. What troubles me is that they are almost all completely disingenuous. They are trying every excuse in the book, as if no one knows that they conceal their admit dates because they don’t want anyone to know they are new lawyers. Who are they kidding? Its absurd.

    Even Sam Glover, with his list of reasons, is just being ridiculous. The reason is obvious, and trying to pretend otherwise is ludicrous.

    That said,there is just a huge difference between the view held by the new lawyers, who believe they are entitled to do anything they need to do to make money, and experienced lawyers who believe ethics prevails.

    The problem is that while they are totally unpersuasive, they just don’t care. They don’t care about ethics. They only care about their “right” to do anything that might possibly make them money.

    This is not going to end well.

  15. SHG

    It’s pretty obvious that the “debate” is facially disingenuous. They can deny it all they want, make any excuse no matter how silly, but everyone knows why they conceal the dates.  So they’re unpersuasive? They’re baby lawyers. They’ll get better eventually.

    But that they have so little grasp of ethics, and their limited grasp is purely situational. As soon as it’s something they want to do, they will rationalize away the ethical issue. This is pretty much what ethics has become for digital natives, and that is a terrible thing for the profession and for society.

  16. Bruce Godfrey

    What’s the honest response to “does this dress make my butt look big?” It isn’t “no, you look great in that.” It isn’t “yes it sort of does.” It is “your butt is as big as it is; the dress is an innocent bystander.” We have to be prepared to say this to clients about them and about ourselves.

    I suspect (but cannot prove) that the commercial, bottom-line benefits of direct honesty outweigh deception even in the short term. When I have told clients that I had not handled ______________ before and needed at least experienced co-counsel to split the work and fee, that usually increased the client’s propensity to retain. This is not the reason to be honest, because honesty is a core character trait, not a policy. But it’s nice when doing the right thing has a practical benefit as well.

    It may not always be deceptive per se to leave out the date information (depending on the style/surrounding content.) The concern is entirely legitimate re: the potential for misleading the client. I do not see how getting rid of puffery (e.g. “competent” – which should be the presumed minimum under the rules anyway) lowers transparency; if anything it clears the smoke.

  17. Bart

    First a disclaimer; I’m not a lawyer, so I have no bone in this debate, but I do have a question; What is so important about the date anyone graduated law school ?

    Of course, it is interesting to know how long a lawyer has been practicing, but to me, it only seems like a very small piece of the puzzle. I can think of lots of equally important information (experience with particular types of cases, current caseload, opinion of former clients, …), which will probably not be on a lawyer’s website either.

    So what distinguishes a date of graduation from all these other things ? Or do you think that lawyers should place every piece of relevant information on their websites ? (That might be quite a lot of work.) The one difference I can spot is that a graduation date has a higher information to effort to make available value than most other data and needs no work to keep up to date.

  18. SHG

    The date is one of the few hard facts that provides a piece of information about a lawyer that clients may find useful. As with all pieces of information, it is not per se significant, but a piece of a puzzle that can’t be hyped or spun like so many other claims made.  If it’s valuable to some, then it is. If not, no harm having it there.

    The issue is less about how useful or important it is, than about why lawyer would deliberate conceal it.

  19. JKTJ

    Doesn’t this essentially boil down to whether or not you consider the law a profession or a business? Obviously (I guess not though), it must be a profession because of our duty to our clients and the courts. It is disturbing that many of those defending a lie by omission are, hopefully intentionally, missing the point. It worries me more that they may legitimately not understand the problem. I do suggest a “lawyer-year” where one year of practice equals two years of cynicism. But your experience is still only one year.

  20. SHG

    While there is the “business of law” aspect, no lawyer can ignore ethical obligations. Without it, we’re just selling laundry detergent.

  21. Noah Clements

    I hadn’t had my dates on my bio, but now that you raise the issue, I can’t see any defensible reason to omit the dates of my state admissions. Fed court admissions are a different matter, since it would take me a bit more work to find the dates. If I am concerned about appearances of impropriety, which I am, especially when they concern prosecutors and judges, I have to be concerned about my own appearance.

    However, I don’t think all omissions are intentional attempts to mislead, because I really don’t think my own were. Indeed, my JD 2005 date may overstate my experience since I spent much of the time in a big firm, with little experience relevant to my current focus on street-level criminal defense. But once you has been confronted with the possibility that omission may be seen as an intent to deceive, there is a choice to make: disclose or not. The choice should tell you something about yourself.

    There are plenty of lawyers who do not read your blog, and have not made this omission as a conscious attempt to deceive. But I do appreciate your efforts to raise the bar.

  22. SHG

    The only date that matters is the initial state bar admission. Everything comes after that, by definition. It doesn’t hurt to include it, but it’s the initial admission that matters.

    While many will never read SJ or hear about the issue, between here, Lawyerist and Unwashed Advocate, we’ve heard a lot of people’s “explanations” for their omissions. While many didn’t do it in a “concious attempt to deceive,” about the best excuse was that they just didn’t think it mattered. It’s unavailing. It mattered enough to include their law school and state of admission in their bio/CV, but not their year? They put in thought, but not enough thought?

    A great many others, the majority, did it so that they wouldn’t be judged as “too raw” by potential clients, though they argued vehemently that it shouldn’t matter. Of course, this is nonsense. If it didn’t matter, they wouldn’t have deliberately omitted it.

    Others sought to argue by comparison, such including W/L record, or dissatisfied clients, but these too are unavailing. If you include wins, then include losses, but the point isn’t to mandate what goes into a bio/CV, but not to intentionally omit one piece while including the other.

    Ethics really isn’t a hard thing. They aren’t situational. They aren’t not being subject to discipline. It’s just being honest. Not such a bad thing to be.

  23. MidwestAtty

    Your argument confuses “years since bar admission” with “competence.” In my first case, I opposed a blue-haired attorney who manages the local office of a national firm. An unsophisticated potential client who came across that attorney’s online bio would probably see the date of the attorney’s admission to the bar and believe him to be particularly competent. In the five documents filed by that attorney during the course of pre-trial proceedings, he made upward of 900 spelling errors, and he blatantly lied to the court about me failing to respond to several of his case-related requests. (The lies were contradicted by my cell phone records.)

    Does his inclusion of the successful outcomes of several dozen of his cases suggest anything less than that he’s particularly competent? I think not. Is he actually competent? I think not. Is his suggestion of competence improper? You suggest that it’s not. Perhaps you’re right, but what’s different about the scenario you describe and the one I’ve just described?

    Because an unsophisticated consumer of legal services will not think to request a copy of his written work, should he be required to post copies of it on his online profile? Perhaps the answer is yes. Certainly a viewer of his online bio believes that he will write well-written, persuasive documents.

    And what of a T14 law school grad who goes to work for a BigLaw firm doing document review for 5 years? Prohibited from advertising her bar admission date?

    For background, I am a new attorney. I received my license in May of 2012, and started my own firm almost immediately thereafter.

    I have chosen not to display the date of my admission to the bar on my Website or in internet profiles that allow me to maintain ambiguity. I do so, in part, to get clients in the door. I make no claims about being experienced, or about having won X number of $Y,000,000 verdicts. When clients ask me about my experience or about when I was admitted to the bar (which has happened once in approximately fifty client interviews), I am totally honest with them. I have turned away several clients because I feared that I would be unable to competently represent them.

    I also refrain from posting my bar admission date, in part, to better serve the clients who have hired me. It is undeniable that opposing parties/counsel are more likely to litigate claims that should be settled when they know their adversary is a new lawyer. Am I really serving my clients’ best interests by flaunting the fact that I’ve only been licensed for six months? I think not.

    Finally, you dismiss without meaningful discussion the common attorney practice of advertising successful transactions/cases. Do you think that attorneys accidentally leave out the “losses,” but include the “wins”? If you don’t, how is that different? I’d say that including wins (w/o losses) might even imply that the attorney can guarantee a successful outcome.

    Good looking out for the profession. Thank you.

  24. SHG

    All the points you raise were discussed  at great length already, so I won’t go through it all again. The point doesn’t confuse years of admission with competence, but one is a hard fact and another isn’t. The point isn’t so much that a lawyer must include his date of admission, but the deliberate act of omission of the date when there is inclusion of law school and bar admissions is an act of dishonesty. If you include a piece of factual information, include it accurately, with all the material information rather than the part that serves your interest and concealing the part that doesn’t.

    You are newly admitted and “want to maintain your ambiguity” to get clients in the door. You are being deliberately deceptive because you think it’s good for business. You may not mean it in a venal way, but that doesn’t change what you’re doing.  There is no such thing as “situational ethics,” where it’s ethical only if it’s good for your business. Sorry, but that’s not how ethics work.

    I don’t “dismiss” the practice of lawyers advertising their wins. This post just isn’t about that. Not every post is about every evil perceived by every reader. You raise it because you feel it diminishes the wrong that you’re doing. It doesn’t. The fact that I may be ugly doesn’t make you good looking.

    As for W/L records, they are problematic on numerous levels, from the difficulty of the case to what constitutes a win or a loss to prior results having no bearing on future results. That said, if someone lists their “wins,” they should also list their “losses.” I’m of the view, however, that neither wins nor losses should be listed, as they are inherently misleading.

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