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Should Lawyers Mark A Spot With With a Domain Dot – And Will Ethics Regulators Say Yay or Not?

Move over, vanity license plates emblazoned with slogans like NTGUILTY, or call lines like  1-800-SUE-THEM. Beginning today, lawyers everywhere will have yet another means to brazenly trumpet their presence as the gtld  (generic top level domain names) .lawyer and .attorney become generally available for registration. That’s right, by tonight, the web will be littered with declarative URLs like CallMy.Lawyer or WorldsBest.Attorney or more banal but descriptive ones like NewYorkCityPersonalInjury.Lawyer.

Still, while seemingly related to dozens of other poor taste forms of lawyer branding, the new lawyer and attorney dots aren’t just another type of digital beauty mark. As I’ll discuss below, only licensed lawyers in good standing qualify to register these new domains, and thus, the domains act as a quick proxy to distinguish real lawyers from the dozens of  #newlaw, lead-hen and pay per click sites that dominate Google searches for lawyers.  The only remaining kink: will the ethics regulators view registrar regulation of lawyers’ license status an encroachment on their turf and declare lawyer use of the new domains a prohibited deceptive practice?

Before reaching the larger policy questions, let’s take a look at how the new domains work and more importantly, whether solos and smalls should consider registration. By way of background, back in 2012, ICANN, the non-profit organization that oversees creation and management of domain names announced that it would expand the limited registry of gtld (such as .com, .org and .gov) to include law related terms such as .legal, .law, .lawyer and .attorney.  On October 8, 2014 following a sunrise phase, in which trademark holders could register domains matching their trademarks, .lawyer and .attorney will become generally available for any lawyer to register.

Or most lawyers, that is. That’s because the .lawyer and .attorney domain names are classified as “highly regulated” domains, which subject domain registrants to additional requirements developed by ICANN’s GAC  (General Advisory Committee).  As summarized at Open Provider, applicants for a “highly regulated” domain extension must:

*Comply with all applicable laws, including those that relate to privacy, data collection, consumer protection (including in relation to misleading and deceptive conduct), fair lending, debt collection, organic farming, disclosure of data, and financial disclosures;

*Provide administrative contact information, which must be kept up-to-date, for the notification of complaints or reports of registration abuse, as well as the contact details of the relevant regulatory, or industry self-regulatory, bodies in their main place of business;

*Represent that the Registrant possesses any necessary authorizations, charters, licenses and/or other related credentials for participation in the sector associated with such Highly-regulated TLD; and

Report any material changes to the validity of the Registrant’s authorizations, charters, licenses and/or other related credentials for participation in the sector associated with the Highly-regulated TLD to ensure the Registrant continues to conform to the appropriate regulations and licensing requirements and generally conduct their activities in the interests of the consumers they serve.

The requirements are intended to imbue domain extensions like .lawyer and .attorney with added credibility. And, they may potentially confer a competitive edge on practicing lawyers who often lose ground in SEO wars to lead generators or pay per click sites with URLS like “bankruptcyattorney.com” or “Familylaw.com.” Because these lead gen sites often bury the lede so to speak (i.e., the disclaimer that the site is not a law firm), consumers who come across these sites often can’t distinguishing these marketing sites from law firm sites and wind up retaining lawyers without recognizing that they’re just being randomly assigned to the lawyer who paid for the territory. With .lawyer and .attorney sites, consumers who prefer to deal directly with a lawyer rather than a middle man, have an easier path to identifying them. For that reason, lawyers may want to consider locking up their own name and potentially other key words with a .lawyer or .attorney extension even if they decide not to use the new domain name right away.

And certainly, there’s reason to be cautious in jumping over to a .lawyer or .attorney name, as several lawyers interviewed by LawTimesNews.com observe.  For starters, lawyers who’ve been doing business under one domain name for a long time need to consider impacts to SEO, says Steven Matthews of Stem Legal. According to Matthews:

Domains gain value the longer that you own them and you manage them and you run a web site on them. So the longer a domain is in existence and the longer your firm has been on a particular domain, Google is going to treat it better in the search engines. You’ve built branding on it; there’s a lot of value there.”

But if a lawyer or a law firm is starting from scratch, “it’s another story,” says Matthews. He notes exact-match searches are possible through the new generic top-level domains, which boosts the chances of appearing higher in a Google search.

“If you’re a Vancouver trademark lawyer and you have vancouvertrademark.lawyer, having that search phrase in consecutive terms embedded in the domain name gives you an exact match and that is a big plus in the search-engine ranking,” says Matthews.

And even though the new domain names can give practicing lawyers added cache, the credibility boost is only as good as the enforcement efforts behind it. Thus, Internet lawyer Gil Zyulony asks :

“What happens if a non-lawyer registers for those domain names? Is it something that can be revoked? What if [the person] is a lawyer and then he gets disbarred?” [Zyulony] asks.

“I think at some point it might be free to be used by anybody. The lawyer restriction will be taken away,” he adds. “The people who are running this are interested in selling as many domain names as they want. They’re not the law society. They’re not going to police who is a lawyer and who is not a lawyer.”

Zyulony’s point raises another issue: how will ethics regulators here in the U.S. react to the new top level domains. In my view, they ought to jump for joy that domain registrars – private companies with a strong financial interest to enforce ICANN’s highly regulated registration requirements to avoid losing their status – will help police the blogosphere for UPL. Lawyers registering the new domain names are required to provide registrars with contact details of the regulatory authorities – and if registrars publish this information along with other WHOIS data, reporting an non-lawyer or unlicensed lawyer operating under a .lawyer or .attorney domain will be an easy matter. Bar associations may also be able to procure lists of .lawyer or .attorney registrants from the registrar and audit registrants’ status. A partnership between the ethics regulators and registrars to enforce domain requirements isn’t as intrusive, as say, an ethics bot  since lawyers who chafe at the additional oversight needn’t register the new domain.

Still, even though ethics regulators should embrace this new opportunity to facilitate online enforcement of UPL rules and help lawyers gain a leg up on non-lawyer competitors, they won’t. Instead, I predict that regulators will view the new registration rules as an encroachment on their exclusive turf to certify who’s a lawyer and who isn’t. So the regulators will argue that since registrants self-certify without verification by the registrars, consumers will gain a false sense of security that the sites are run by lawyers when that might not be case. And rather than simply advising consumers that they can easily check the regulator’s website, conveniently listed with the registration information, ethics regulators will prohibit lawyers from registering .lawyer and .attorney domain extensions at all.

Are the current domain extension enforcement requirements perfect? Of course not. But the reality is that in a crowded space online, consumers need a quick and dirty way to distinguish real lawyers from lead gen sites and #newlaw #nonlaw concoctions. The newly announced domain extensions offer a way to do that. Regulators should explore the opportunity before putting the kibosh on it. And practicing lawyers should rush out and buy up the .lawyer and .attorney domains before their respect bar associations can prohibit them from doing so.