This past month, both Eric Mazzone, North Carolina’s law practice management expert and blogger at Law Practice Matters and the Illinois State Bar Association advise lawyers against filling in the “specialties” box on Linked-In without including some nerdy little caveat like “My state bar does not recognize specializations” or “I am not a certified specialist” BUT I focus on the following.  As for me, thanks for the advice, but I’ll politely decline.   In my view, filling in a standardized box labeled “specialties” that everyone from college students to seasoned professionals completes as part of their profile does not amount to holding myself out as a specialist given the context.  And I’m not inclined to muck up a simple profile with a bunch of legal-ese on because someone up at the bar stretches the meaning of “specialties” beyond any reasonable interpretation.

Like North Carolina and Illinois, Maryland, one of the bars where I practice has adopted a version of Model Rule 7.4 which governs claims of specialization (fortunately, the DC Bar has no such limitation).  The Maryland Rule states:

(a) A lawyer may communicate the fact that the lawyer does or does not practice in particular fields of law, subject to the requirements of Rule 7.1. A lawyer shall not hold himself or herself out publicly as a specialist.

(b) A lawyer admitted to engage in patent practice before the United States Patent and Trademark Office may use the designation “Patent Attorney” or a substantially similar designation.

For starters, Rule 7.4 does indeed allow me to state whether I practice in a particular area.  However, I cannot hold myself out as a specialist in those fields – so if I were to include in my Linked-In profile a line such as “Specialist in appellate matters,” I’d arguably run afoul of Rule 7.4.  But filling out a standardized box labeled “specialty” is not the same as declaring oneself a “specialist” – and I think that the public understands that. (Maryland’s bar opinions may take a different approach but since I’m not a member of the MBSA and can’t access the opinions otherwise, too bad).

I agree with Eric to the extent that we lawyers don’t check our ethics obligations at the door when we enter the world of social media.  Still, many ethics rules were developed before social media and aren’t designed to deal with the unique issues that social media presents – such as a standardized “Specialties” box in Linked-In or the frequency of updates of blogs which makes pre-publication review infeasible.  So while I will abide by my obligation to avoid deceiving the public, we also need to keep in mind that what’s deceptive in the offline world may be perfectly clear or acceptable in the online context.  Which is why a paper advertisement by a law firm that says “We are personal injury specialists” may confuse consumers by leading them to believe that the firm brings unique qualifications to the table.  By contrast, listing “personal injury” as a specialty in a standardized box is more reasonably viewed as a way of indicating a practice area, nothing more.

If my Bar tells me “thou shalt not fill out the Linked-In specialization box without appropriate caveats,” let it do so, by issuing clear, unequivocal guidance in the form of an opinion or rule.  In the meantime, I’m not going to guess how some ethics expert who doesn’t use social media at all might or might not interpret what’s misleading or permissible in that context – because if I did, I’d be stuck sitting on the sidelines.