ETHICS OF THE LEGAL PROFESSION AND THE USE OF THE INTERNET: THE CLASH
Immaculate White. Symbolic Black. Effigy of Justice. Nobility. Solemnity and Formality. Confraternity. These are words and phrases that point emphatically to the legal profession and its practice. White on black strongly suggests the purity of justice in solemnity and sobriety. This White on black has manifested itself right from the very outset of modern legal practice both on the legal turf of our colonial masters and our very legal system. The formal dress code and the appropriate ways of advertising and creating awareness about legal services are instructive in this regard. The emergence and sudden sweep of the information media by the internet appears to have also ensured an equivalently sudden sweep in the adherence to the ethics of the legal profession concerning creating awareness and advertisement. This short write-up soberly beams searchlight on this apparent situation using the law as the benchmark, with the aim of stimulating commentaries and opinions on the issue, converse or approbrating.
Importantly, this brief exposition focuses on two aspects of the display of legal professional ethics. These are, the individual lawyer on one hand, and an association or conglomerate of lawyers called a law firm or chambers as the case may be. Let us get this jaunt rolling.
By Rule 7 of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners, 2007, subject only to the permission of the Bar Council, a legal practitioner is precluded from practising another profession simultaneously with the legal profession. A legal practitioner is equally precluded from practising while simultaneously engaging in ‘trade or business’. Evidently, the varied, multi-faceted and ever-increasing dimensions of legal practice bring one to an obvious realization that the definition of ‘legal practice’ is an unruly horse. Meanwhile, the tenor, spirit and letter of this provision speak volume of the sobriety and minimal competitiveness of legal practice.
With respect to a conglomerate or association of lawyers, of huge germaneness are the provisions of Sections 39 and 40 of the same Rules of Professional Conduct. Advertisement and promotion of legal services must be fair and in conformity with the provisions of the Rules. Sub-rule 2 under Rule 39 categorically outlaws any advertising or promotion of legal practice/service which either makes comparison (direct or implicit) with or criticizes other lawyers, or any advertisement or promotion which includes statement about the quality of the lawyer’s work, the size of success of his practice or his success rate.
Regarding an individual lawyer, Sub-rule 3 of Rule 39 is heavily instructive. Notwithstanding the ‘fairness’ or ‘propriety’ of an advertisement or promotion of legal service/practice, a lawyer shall not solicit professional employment DIRECTLY OR INDIRECTLY:
“(a) by circulars, handbills, advertisement, through touts or by personal communication or interview;
(b) by furnishing, permitting or inspiring newspaper, radio or television comments in relation to his practice of the law;
(c) by procuring his photograph to be published in connection with matters in which he has been or is engaged, or concerning the manner of their conduct, the magnitude of the interest involved or the importance of the lawyer’s position;
(d) by permitting or inspiring sound recordings in relation to his practice of law; or
(e) by such similar self-aggrandizement.
We have to make a reconnaissance to the aspect of legal conglomerates again. Rule 41 stipulates that a lawyer or a firm may display at the entrance of or outside any buildings or offices in which he or it carries on practice, a sign or notice, containing his or its name and professional qualifications, the sign or notice being of reasonable size and sober design. Law firms and chambers in recent times are now at least, in two distinct worlds of appearances. Law firms are sited at strategic geographical areas. Law firms are now equally situate at strategic ‘netical’ or internet-based locations too! Truly, the Rules in the instant inquiry evidently neither contemplates the internet advertising situation nor does it contemplate law firms that are both virtual and real in sites. However, the sobriety of advertisements and promotions remains key and infectiously vital.
Flowing from these few points that have been afore-raised, these questions come to fore:
(a) Is it legally ethical for a lawyer to advertise and promote himself on the internet? If so, to what extent?
(b) Is it legally ethical for a lawyer to brandish his legal qualifications, client or clientele achievements and conquests on the internet? If so, to what extent?
(c) Is it legally ethical for a lawyer to make the internet public aware of his availability for job placement or employment connected with legal practice? If so, to what extent?
(d) Is it legally ethical for a law firm or chambers to boast of its achievements on the internet? If so, to what extent?
(e) Is it legally ethical for a law firm or chambers to make its designed insignia, mission statements and other organizational details openly available on the internet? If so, to what extent?
(f) Are virtually (if not all) all law firms, chambers and lawyers alike not culpable of violating the Rules? If so, the instances must now become clearer and easier to highlight and lay bare.
These are questions that require nourishment from informed legal opinions. Let the brainstorm begin in earnest. This writer is equally not exonerated. A follow-up is nigh but certainly, not now. So for now, enjoy your day and night!
Olukolade O. Ehinmosan,
Aspiring Legal Practitioner.