Category Archives: Regulation

October 2016 Notes: Is There a Ray of Light in the Attorney Regulation Darkness?

Florida Institutionalizes “Access to Justice” Efforts.  In recent years, many states have implemented commissions to try and find solutions to the “access to justice” crisis. In Florida, after several years of work, the state Supreme Court has decided to make that state’s Commission permanent. That’s a good thing; the growth in pro se representation makes it incumbent upon courts to find ways to make it easier for people to grapple with the wheels of justice. This is not a problem so easily solved in a handful of years. But let’s also hope that the Commission – with the guidance of the Florida Supreme Court – will turn its attention to the archaic regulations that make it difficult for attorneys to offer innovative services to a public desperate for legal information and guidance. Because the Florida Bar seems to be trying to make things even worse.

Virginia Looks to Streamline Attorney Advertising Rules. On a more encouraging note, Virginia is leading the charge to update the attorney advertising rules. This effort stems from the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, which analyzed the rules and concluded that many of them are unnecessary, unconstitutional, and unduly burdensome. The issues with the existing rules go beyond the mere pedantic. The rules keep good attorneys from speaking out about the legal services they provide, while distracting enforcement authorities with banalities like lawyer referral service regulation or determining the “reasonable cost of advertising.” APRL’s proposal – which Virginia is looking to adopt – would eliminate much of this “cruft” within the rules, while retaining and sharpening the focus on preventing false and misleading advertising. This would be a great outcome for consumers and attorneys alike, and the Virginia State Bar deserves a lot of credit for pushing forward with such meaningful change.

Court Finds Review Sites Immune From Suit. 47 USC § 230(c)(1) is a curious law. Only 26 words long, “CDA 230” stands for a counter-intuitive (to lawyers, at least) principle: that responsibility for online content rests only with its creator. It doesn’t matter whether someone else has provided a forum for the content, promoted it, or disseminated it. Only the “content creator” can be liable. I call CDA 230 “the law that makes the internet go,” because it allows sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (and Avvo!) to create robust online communities without being liable for all of the stuff that gets published within those communities. There are exceptions to this rule – think IP and federal crimes – but for the most part CDA 230 is a powerful factor in the growth of the web. All this background to get here: the 9th Circuit just found that CDA 230 immunizes Yelp from defamation liability for user reviews. While the outcome was abjectly unsurprising, it’s nice to see the rule applied directly to online reviews.

Social Media News and Notes:

RT ≠ endorsement: court authorizes service of process via twitter.

Amazon bans incentivized user reviews.

More evidence that “reputation management” companies may be defrauding courts.

 

Intermediate Scrutiny for Professional Speech Regulation?

To what extent should the government be able to regulate what doctors and lawyers say? Sure, the focus of this blog is commercial speech, and that question is relatively settled (at least as far as the speech in question is straightforward advertising). But what about other forms of expression? How far can the state go in controlling what professionals say in that capacity, or when they are working with clients or patients?

It’s a messy issue, and one that is surprisingly bereft of easy answers or judicial guidance.

How messy? Well, Florida thinks it needs to protect the second amendment rights of its citizens by restricting how doctors can talk to patients about guns.  And California thinks it needs to use pregnancy-related clinics (including religious ones) to help advance the marketing of its state-funded family planning and pregnancy services, including abortion.

Where does the line get drawn? As I’ve argued before, I believe there are significant First Amendment problems with including “legal advice” within the legal monopoly. I also believe that getting a license to practice law should not deprive an attorney of full free speech rights – at least when those rights are exercised outside of a client’s matter.

But what about speech that’s engaged in within the attorney-client or doctor-patient relationship? While it seems clear that the government shouldn’t have free rein over what is clearly expressive activity, it also seems that the state’s interest in licensing – which is, broadly speaking, to protect the public – would dictate that it gets some leeway here.

But what should the standard be? It’s surprising that this issue hasn’t been more fully-fleshed out by the courts. Outside of speech at the core of professional licensure, 1 it’s a marshy swampland.

While we’re probably not going to get any answers until the Supreme Court directly addresses professional speech regulation, the Ninth Circuit did helpfully wade into the swamp in ruling on the California “abortion marketing” law described above. In its October 14, 2016 decision in NIFLA v. Harris, the Ninth Circuit found that regulation of “middle ground” professional speech – that is, speech that is less than a “public dialogue” yet more than the speech-as-conduct at the core of a professional’s practice – is subject to intermediate scrutiny review (the same as commercial speech).

That sounds right to me, 2 and it provides a good way of thinking about the extent of acceptable lawyer speech regulation in areas that don’t involve advertising or advocacy.

But again, this is an area that could really use an assist from the Supreme Court.

 

Notes:

  1. For example, psychological counseling or advocating for a client before a court, either of which would likely be considered by a court to be conduct rather than speech for the purposes of regulation. See, e.g., Pickup v. Brown, 740 F.3d 1208 (9th Cir. 2013).
  2. Although the Ninth Circuit really rushed through – in an unconvincing way – the intermediate scrutiny analysis to find that California could compel pregnancy clinics to market the state’s services.

The First Amendment in the Courtroom

In there a tension between the First Amendment and a judge’s right to control the courtroom? Nah. The right of a judge to control the courtroom pretty much slices through any such tension. Courtrooms – despite being government spaces – are the quintessential non-public fora. It’s not without reason that it’s been said that first amendment rights are “at their nadir” in the courtroom.

And control they do. Judges can be notoriously tetchy about stuff.  In just this last week, I’ve seen stories about judges getting butthurt over derogatory references to AOL email addresses, a big law firm sending a first-year associate to a hearing on an important case, and a lawyer refusing to remove a “Black Lives Matter” pin.

Of course these positions are stupid: taking offense over a perhaps-derogatory reference to an email address is mind-numbingly petty; many junior lawyers are better prepared than their senior partners for questions from the bench; and getting bent out of shape over a pin says more about a judge’s political beliefs than anything else.

But there’s a reason everyone laughs at a judge’s jokes. As an advocate, you’re in court represent a client. And as Megan Zavieh notes, your sole job in the courtroom is to advance the interests of your client. So laugh you do, and be sure to be prepared for a hearing, and don’t make jokes at the tech-enfeebled judge’s expense.

And you sure as hell don’t argue with the judge when he orders you to remove your politically-sloganeering button.  It beggars belief that a lawyer wouldn’t understand this; that she would let herself be shackled and taken from the courtroom – leaving her client unrepresented – in service of “standing up for her beliefs.”

While there are arguments about whether this judge’s order was appropriate, that’s beside the point when it comes to the attorney’s decision. Her beliefs? They could live to be vindicated another day. If she thinks the judge is a retrograde dinosaur, should could have fully exercised her First Amendment right to say so – at a time when the price for doing so would have been paid by her alone.

Minnesota’s No Good, Very Bad UPL Decision

Brian Faughnan has the details, but here’s the quick overview: A Colorado attorney agrees to help out his in-laws, who are dealing with a debt collector in their home state of Minnesota. Like a good son-in-law, he does it for free. He engages in a series of emails with the attorney for the creditor, who eventually (because shaking people down for small-time debts isn’t enough to satisfy his “I’ve gotta be an asshole” jones) files a bar grievance against the Colorado lawyer. Colorado lawyer ends up being disciplined by the Minnesota Bar authorities for the unlicensed practice of law, a decision which is subsequently upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

(Read the decision: In Re Charges of Unprofessional Conduct.)

Where to begin? Brian and other ethics mavens have already focused on the troubling retrograde nature of this decision, applying antiquated notions of the practice of law to modern communications norms. But I want to focus on three other fundamental problems with this decision:

Defining “The Practice of Law:”  As I’ve noted before, lawyer regulation has some fundamental First Amendment problems.  This is particularly true with respect to “legal advice.” The prohibition on non-lawyers providing legal advice is a content-based speech restriction, and those almost never survive a constitutional challenge.

In this case, Minnesota had the multi-jurisdictional practice statute to rely on; that rule explicitly limits out-of-state lawyers, and thus provides a thin facade to conceal an otherwise-suspect rationale. But what if the son-in-law hadn’t been a lawyer?  More on that in a moment.

“Holding Out:”  Much is made, too, of the argument that the Colorado attorney was “holding out” as the lawyer on a Minnesota legal matter. But this doesn’t survive scrutiny. The “holding out” indictment is based solely on the fact that the Colorado lawyer stated that he “represented” his in-laws. Yet restrictions on “holding out” as a lawyer are intended to apply to a specific set of practices that are harmful to consumers (i.e., pretending to be licensed as an attorney when you are not, in an effort to solicit business) – not to whatever this was. 1

And again, what if the Colorado lawyer hadn’t been an attorney? Would the disciplinary authorities have been able to argue that his statement of representation evidenced “holding old?” As with the definition of the “practice of law,” the only thread holding this together is the fact that the son-in-law was a lawyer.  Had he NOT been a lawyer, the state would have been left with a difficult argument: that people can’t help each other out with informal legal advice and advocacy unless they are in-state-licensed attorneys.

Which, come to think of it, is actually what most attorneys believe anyway. But I’m pretty confident that proposition would lose if challenged on First Amendment grounds.

Antitrust:  The discipline in this case was imposed by a 6-member panel of the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board. The Board is  comprised primarily of Minnesota lawyers. The discipline was then affirmed by the Minnesota Supreme Court, using a “clearly erroneous” standard.

This is a problem for the Board. Imposing discipline on non-market participants to maintain a government-sanctioned monopoly is the definition of anti-competitive behavior. And while quasi-government boards made up of market participants used to receive antitrust immunity, they don’t anymore (thanks to the North Carolina Dental Board case) unless they are “actively supervised” by the state. Judicial review – especially judicial review based on a highly deferential standard like that used here – is not within shouting distance of “active supervision.” While this issue wasn’t brought up in this case, it’s something Minnesota should think about if it plans to keep having other attorneys handle disciplinary decisions – and particularly when those decisions involve excluding competition from the market for legal services.

Notes:

  1. Let’s call it pedantry: “The out-of-state lawyer stated that he represented an in-state party. In-state parties can only be represented by in-state attorneys. Ergo, he is “holding out” as an in-state attorney.”

Ethics Opinion Follies

Earlier this year, Avvo rolled out Avvo Legal Services, our fixed-price packages for consumers and small businesses, fulfilled by local attorneys. We put a lot of thought into this product, how it would meet consumer needs, and how it could comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct to which lawyers are bound.

Our guiding principle in building Avvo Legal Services? Making them as consumer-friendly as possible. Our thought was that by so doing, the RPC issues should take care of themselves. As the RPCs are all about consumer and client protection, they shouldn’t be implicated by practices that don’t harm those people – right?

Right.

But one obstacle to this approach is a pervasive mindset of “rigid” or “mechanical” compliance that persists with the RPCs. Many attorneys want “safe harbor” guidance from the Bars on what complies with the rules. To respond to this need, many state Bars provide ethics opinions upon request. Such opinions are typically non-binding, but can carry some weight in a subsequent disciplinary proceeding.

Little surprise, then, that such opinions typically take the most conservative viewpoint possible. In most cases, the bars will broadly apply the rules, with no regard whatsoever for the first amendment implications or whether their interpretation is materially advancing the interests of consumers.

Indeed, in some cases the regulators explicitly state that their opinion does not take into account any first amendment factors. See, e.g., the last line of South Carolina Ethics Opinion 09-10. 1

If the Bars are serious about expanding access to legal services and information, one change they could make right away is to get out of the ethics opinion business – at least with respect to lawyer advertising. By discouraging new legal service offerings and disseminating information about legal services, the Bars are gravely mistreating the public they are ostensibly charged with serving and protecting.

And it’s not just me railing about this. The Supreme Court addressed a very similar system – that used by the Federal Election Commission – in the landmark 2010 Citizens United case. 2  Remarkably, the words chosen by the Court in Citizens United to describe the FEC’s advisory opinion process could just as easily apply to the process used by many state attorney regulators:

“Because the FEC’s “business is to censor, there inheres the danger that [it] may well be less responsive than a court—part of an independent branch of government—to the constitutionally protected interests in free expression.” Freedman v. Maryland, 380 U.S. 51, 57-58, 85 S.Ct. 734, 13 L.Ed.2d 649 (1965). When the FEC issues advisory opinions that prohibit speech, “[m]any persons, rather than undertake the considerable burden (and sometimes risk) of vindicating their rights through case-by-case litigation, will choose simply to abstain from protected speech—harming not only themselves but society as a whole, which is deprived of an uninhibited marketplace of ideas.” [citations omitted]. Consequently, “the censor’s determination may in practice be final.” Freedman, supra, at 5885 S.Ct. 734.

Despite the approach of some Bars, there’s simply no way to interpret the rules regarding attorney speech without considering the first amendment.  Those bars that explicitly fail to do so are exacerbating the censor’s veto, hurting consumers, lawyers and the interests of free expression. There’s no question that such opinions cause many attorneys to simply abstain from providing information about the services they offer, preventing the consumers the Bar is supposed to serve from receiving information that may be vitally important to them.

Until and unless the Bars start doing away with the advisory opinion practice, attorneys who wish to really honor their commitment to serving the public should disregard these opinions. By understanding how the commercial speech doctrine works, such attorneys can confidently determine for themselves, independent of Bar input, where the rules apply and where they don’t.

Notes:

  1. And let’s keep picking on South Carolina, since they just issued an ethics opinion that seems to take aim at Avvo Legal Services: sometimes these opinions directly contradict one another. Compare the treatment of Rule 5.4 fee-sharing in South Carolina ethics opinion 11-05 vs. the new opinion 16-06
  2. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 588 U.S. 310 (2010).

California Issues Broad Opinion on Lawyer Confidentiality

As someone who has been hiring lawyers for over 20 years, I love the idea of lawyerly confidentiality. I don’t want my lawyers talking about my cases unless they’ve got my permission to do so.

And from a lawyer’s perspective, getting it right when it comes to confidentiality isn’t hard: if it’s a close call, if it makes you think at all, then keep your yap shut. Period. That’s both good legal ethics and good business. Why? Because prospective clients aren’t going to give a rip about your nuanced arguments for why your embarrassing disclosures about former clients don’t violate the ethics rules. They just aren’t going to want to be the next one you blab about, which means you won’t be hired.

In issuing the latest opinion on lawyer confidentiality, California notes that a lawyer’s obligation of confidentiality extends beyond merely client secrets and confidences. Rather, it properly covers “all information relating to the representation, whatever its
source,” and may include information that is otherwise publicly available.

From the perspective of a client, I like that: I don’t want my lawyers talking about stuff they’ve worked on for me, even if it IS public. Or worse, doing as one of Donald Trump’s lawyers recently did, using the fact of the former attorney-client relationship to add greater credibility to comments that I might find embarrassing.

And yet . . . should this concept of “public confidentiality” really exist on pain of sanctions? I’m all for calling such loose-lipped attorneys out as being bad for clients, for not exercising their obligation of loyalty to the fullest, etc., but should they be legally prohibited from talking about stuff that every other member of the public is free to discuss?

This is but one of many areas in which attorney regulation has a First Amendment problem.  One of the few court decisions to actually address the issue of attorneys being prohibited from communicating publicly-available information about their clients’ cases  (Hunter v. Virginia State Bar) concluded that the constitutional considerations trumped the regulatory reach of RPC 1.6:

State action that punishes the publication of truthful information can rarely survive constitutional scrutiny . . . To the extent that the information is aired in a public forum, privacy considerations must yield to First Amendment protections. In that respect, a lawyer is no more prohibited than any other citizen from reporting what transpired in the courtroom.

That sounds right to me. Attorneys shouldn’t be subject to legal sanction for talking about truthful, public information, even if so doing embarrasses their clients.

Now, whether those clients (or any potential clients) should want to continue working with such loose-lipped lawyers is another matter entirely.

FTC Comment on North Carolina’s “LegalZoom Law”

In June of 2016, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice sent a detailed letter in response to an inquiry from North Carolina Senator Bill Cook. The subject? The impending enactment of North Carolina House Bill 436, legislation that would exclude online interactive legal forms from the definition of “the practice of law.” Providers of such forms would be required to meet a number of regulatory requirements, including extensive disclaimer and disclosure terms. 1

These federal agencies have no small amount of consumer protection expertise. The FTC also has a long history of calling out state attorney regulators for employing overreaching advertising rules to hamper the free flow of information about legal services.

In the letter, the FTC and DOJ quickly emphasized their point:

The Agencies recommend that any consumer protections, such as requiring disclosures, be narrowly tailored to avoid unnecessarily inhibiting competition and new ways of delivering legal services that may benefit consumers.

The message here is clear: don’t create regulatory requirements just to create regulatory requirements. Or without carefully considering the costs and benefits of such requirements, and whether there might be less-intrusive alternatives.

Why is this lesson so hard to learn? Why do we continue to grapple with rigid, mechanically-applied regulation, rather than flexibly determining whether the desired outcome – consumer protection – could still be met while enabling new and innovative ways of delivering information and services?

Here’s the FTC and DOJ again:

The Agencies recognize the important role of state legislatures, courts, and bar associations in protecting consumers of legal services from harm. The Agencies have previously noted, however, that unnecessarily broad [regulatory interpretations] can impose significant competitive costs on consumers of legal services, restrict access to legal services, and inhibit the development of innovative ways to deliver legal services to consumers.

It’s time to stop just reading the rules and thinking that slavish obedience is the path to consumer protection. The current approach is both overbroad and underprotective: it discourages innovation, scares away the ethical, and provides safe harbor for those willing to cloak consumer deception in the cloth of technical compliance. Let’s move past it, as our brethren in the UK have, and start focusing on the outcomes we want to achieve rather than the sterile minutiae of our rules and regulations.

Notes:

  1. HB 436 shouldn’t be seen as a recognition by North Carolina that a narrower definition of the practice of law would be useful to attorneys and beneficial to consumers; rather, it was the product of the settlement of a lawsuit filed against the state by LegalZoom.

Pay-per-Action, Legal Edition

Lawyers can advertise, and they can pay to do so. We’ve known that since Bates v. Arizona, in 1977; this principle is basically the driving force behind this blog. And this right exists notwithstanding the weaselly way it finds expression in the Rules of Professional Conduct:

Rule 7.2

(b): A lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services except that a lawyer may:

(1) pay the reasonable costs of advertisements or communications permitted by this Rule.

But here’s the thing: advertising has come a long way from the good old days of insertion orders, where advertisers paid based on the size of the anticipated audience, hoping that some small percentage of that audience would buy what they were selling.  Nowadays, you can buy advertising based on intent. Rather than buying the whole basket of impressions seeing your ad, you can pay only for the audience that has actually expressed some interest. Two obvious examples are pay-per-click (most notably used by Google) and pay-per-lead (think online web forms).

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway (as many lawyers are bad at math): advertisers will pay more – orders of magnitude more – for each “click” or “lead” than they would have for each “impression” in the old-school model. Some pay-per-click searches can involve payments in excess of $100 per click. But the reason for the popularity of those techniques is simple: by moving the payment-triggering-event closer to an actual purchase, the advertising expense becomes much more efficient; there’s less risk of waste.

So what about moving the marketing payment all the way over to where someone actually buys? Not just an indication of interest in purchasing – via a click, or a phone call, or filling out a web form – but an honest-to-god, signing-on-the-line-that-is-dotted purchase?

Many businesses pay a healthy percentage of revenue annually, year over year, on marketing alone. Think they’d like to have that payout only triggered by actual purchases? Of course they would. While such certainly would obviate the possibility of improving on those margins via better advertising efficiency (or, more likely, luck) it would also foreclose marketing disasters. Marketing spend would suddenly become predictable, and fully paid for by the resulting transactions.

Traditionally, connecting marketing spend to actual purchases was hard. Usually impossible. And it still is for many types of marketing. However, the internet has made it possible to track this connection, and the online advertising world even has a term for it: “pay-per-action.” Simply put, the advertiser’s cost is based directly on the action of a customer buying the advertiser’s product or service.

Pay-per-action forms the basis for all sorts of online marketing, including online  affiliate marketing. Take, for example, Amazon: the world’s largest online retailer has a robust affiliate program. Online publishers can link to Amazon products, and if someone buys via one of those links, the publisher is paid a small percentage of the transaction. That’s Amazon paying to market its products, one transaction at a time.

What About Attorneys?

When it comes to advertising, attorneys suffer from the hangover of regulations that existed long before Bates v. Arizona and the recognition that attorneys have a first amendment right to advertise. The profession is also hampered by a rigid prohibition on splitting legal fees with non-lawyers.

So, within the rules of most state bars, you have something like the following:

Rule 7.2(b): A lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services except that a lawyer may (1) pay the reasonable costs of advertisements or communications permitted by this Rule;

along with:

Rule 5.4(a): A lawyer or law firm shall not share legal fees with a nonlawyer.

Graft these together and pay-per-action advertising looks like a rules violation. Having the advertising fee dependent on the earning of a fee feels like “fee sharing,” as well as the giving of something for recommending the lawyer’s services.

But is that right? I don’t think so.

Let’s take the “recommending” bit first. The concept of paying-for-recommending-a-lawyer has a sordid history. It goes back to the “runners” and “cappers” who would hang out in hospitals and courthouses, channeling unsuspecting clients to the grubby attorneys who would pay per sucker delivered. There’s a strong consumer protection element in regulating such person-to-person recommendations.

But general advertising online isn’t “recommending,” and it certainly isn’t person-to-person.  It’s just the giving of value for advertising. The fact that the value itself is determined based on a sale rather than an impression matters not.

Or, at least, it doesn’t matter to consumers. There’s no harm to consumers based on how the marketing fee is determined. And without evidence of consumer harm, competition law and the first amendment dictate that the state not regulate.

As for the “fee splitting” bit, that’s just elevating form over substance. No one would argue that attorneys can’t pay for advertising (or salaries, or rent, or letterhead, etc.) based on the fact that such payments are being “split” out of legal fees earned. So what difference does it make if the payment for marketing is closer – i.e., determined by the earning of a legal fee – or even deducted from the fee earned?

The answer is is that it doesn’t make any difference. From the perspective of consumer harm – again, the only lens through which the RPCs can be lawfully interpreted – having a marketing fee triggered by signing a client is no different than the fact that we allow lawyers to use earned legal fees to buy reams of stationary or new iPhones. It’s just that somehow it feels different because it is conditioned on the actual transaction.

A caveat: this feeling isn’t completely groundless. The reason for having a fee-splitting prohibition in the first place is that some such arrangements have the potential to cause interference with the lawyer’s independent professional judgment.

But we need to separate the mechanics of a fee split from the substance of fee splitting practices that might cause such interference. For example:

  • We permit fee splits with other lawyers, assuming (perhaps naively?) that our fellow lawyers would be above bring such pressures to bear.
  • We permit fee splits in circumstances such as credit card processing fees, where the split is incidental to the transaction, and we know that the credit card processor has no reason whatsoever to interfere with the lawyer’s handling of the case.
  • And, of course, we permit fee splits in the world writ large, where lawyers “split” their fees, in the aggregate, with every person and entity they buy goods and services from.

As mentioned above, it’s critically important, when dealing with these concepts, to always view these rules from the perspective of consumer protection. These rules aren’t supposed to be applied mechanically, but rather in a narrow and thoughtful way that maximizes public access to information.

Or as the Federal Trade Commission recently put it, when commenting on yet another overreaching attorney advertising proposal:

“FTC staff believes consumers receive the greatest benefit when reasonable restrictions on advertising are specifically and narrowly tailored to prevent unfair or deceptive claims while
preserving competition and ensuring consumer access to truthful and non-misleading information. Rules that unnecessarily restrict the dissemination of truthful and non-misleading information are likely to limit competition and harm consumers of legal services.”

Exactly. So enough with the reflexive and overbroad interpretations: let’s free legal services up for pay-per-client advertising.

 

“Getting” Commercial Speech

The Floyd Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression is a program at Yale law; yesterday it put on a symposium in New York City on “Commercial Speech and the First Amendment.” It was a surprisingly well-attended event, sold out with a waiting list; probably a couple hundred folks there.

And, of course, squarely in the sweet spot for this blog and my legal interests. I was speaking on a panel, but I found the whole program fascinating. Not only because it’s rare to be in a room with lawyers who have even heard about the commercial speech doctrine – let alone a bunch who know way more about it than I do – but also because the state of the art in understanding commercial speech law is so, so far removed from what attorney regulators do when dealing with commercial speech.

How’s that? Well, the panel before mine featured Floyd Abrams himself, along with a bunch of law professors debating the extent to which the commercial speech doctrine is getting subsumed into the strict scrutiny analysis applicable to most other forms of content-based speech regulation. No one on the panel doubted that the bar for regulating commercial speech was being raised, at least in some ways; the debate was over whether this development is a good thing.

Lawyer regulators? It’s a rare day that you even see an acknowledgement that their ability to regulate is constrained in any meaningful way by the First Amendment.

My co-panelists, Denise Esposito and Rebecca Tushnet, discussed the regulatory challenges facing the FDA and Trademark Office, respectively. In both cases, it’s a matter of generally thoughtful, restrained regulation running into a broader trend of freeing up speech in the margins.

Lawyer regulators? New York’s rules of lawyer advertising run longer than 4,000 words; they know little, if any, restraint (other than what gets forced on them by federal courts).

Judge Alex Kozinski was there, too, cracking wise and noting that the idea that free speech is just for the preservation of self-governance is “bull-pucky.” And Mary Engle from the FTC walked us through how a thoughtful, mature regulator deals with advertising regulation – something that closely approximated the polar opposite of the mechanical approach taken by state advertising regulation. In a statement that would surely shock many state regulators, she noted that many ads don’t need to be labeled “advertisement,” as it is obvious what they are. Gasp!

My only regret is that more folks from the Bars couldn’t be there. Because there is a place for attorney advertising regulation – it just needs to be approached in a manner that respects both the First Amendment rights of those speaking, and the reality that flexible approaches are often preferable to rigid rules.

Florida Continues the Over-Regulatory Spiral

Last week, I wrote about the decision of the New Jersey Committee on Attorney Advertising doubling down on compelled speech (around attorney “accolade” advertising), despite a recent Third Circuit decision noting that such regulation must be carefully and narrowly crafted in order to not offend the First Amendment.

This week brings news of a similar sort of decision out of Florida. Last year, a federal district court ruled that Florida’s prohibition on attorneys using terms such as “specialist” and “expert” to describe their practices – unless certified as such by the Florida Bar or an ABA-certified entity – violated the First Amendment. I’ve long railed on this issue; such restrictions are either lazy or overly-broad interpretations of the Supreme Court’s Peel decision (which simply noted that states can restrict attorneys from falsely stating that they’ve been certified as specialists).

So did the Florida Bar respond by getting rid of its unconstitutional restriction? Pshaw! Of course not.

Rather, the Bar’s Board of Governors has approved a slight change to its rules, adding a new section (D) to Florida’s Rule of Professional Conduct 4-7.14(a)(4):

(D) the lawyer’s experience and training demonstrate specialized competence in the advertised area of practice that is reasonably comparable to that demonstrated by the standards of the Florida Certification Plan set forth in chapter 6 of these rules and, if the area of claimed specialization or expertise is or falls within an area of practice under the Florida Certification Plan, the advertisement includes a reasonably prominent disclaimer that the lawyer is not board certified in that area of practice by The Florida Bar or another certification program if the lawyer is not board certified in that area of practice.

Translation: if you want to say that you “specialize” or have “expertise” in a particular area, be prepared to demonstrate that you’ve got the goods sufficient to be certified by the Bar  . . . assuming the Bar chose to have a certification in your area. How you’d demonstrate that is anyone’s guess.

And if you want to use one of these words to describe your abilities with respect to an area the Bar DOES certify (which includes such broad areas as “civil trial,” “real estate,” “business litigation,” and “criminal trial”), you’re compelled to include a self-abnegating disclaimer.

Why the Bar didn’t take the Court’s strong direction and just get rid of its rule is anyone’s guess. Nothing would have prevented it from so doing while still aggressively going after any attorney who either a) falsely claimed expertise or b) falsely claimed to be certified as a specialist. Either is a form of misleading advertising, easily sanctioned under even the most basic of attorney advertising rules (ABA Model Rule 7.1, which is, honestly, all the attorney advertising regulation we really need).

Will this new rule survive First Amendment scrutiny? The answer is almost certainly no, for the same reasons the court showed the Bar the back of its hand on the last go-round. But until that happens, Florida lawyers will have to think about regulation even when making commonplace expressions of competence.

h/t Joseph Corsmeier