“Expert Criminal Lawyer, Specializing in DUI’s”, “Our Attorneys are Experts in Criminal Law”, “We Specialize in Criminal Law”, “Hire an Expert Criminal Law Specialist”………You see these phrases all over the internet on web sites for Seattle and Washington State criminal lawyers. One problem. Actual expert lawyers or specialists in criminal law, by definition, know the law. Knowing the law entails knowing more than one thing, despite the way these ads emphasize expert specialization. For example, expert lawyers know enough about the law to know that it is unethical and improper to advertise that you are an expert in criminal law or specialize in criminal law in Washington State (unless you follow extremely strict guidelines).
Why? Because under the rules regarding advertising created by the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) it is improper to call yourself an expert unless you meet some very specific requirements. Attorney conduct in Washington State is governed by the WSBA Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC’s). The analysis of this issue begins with RPC 7.1: A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.”
What is misleading? Well, traditionally, only a few areas were specifically recognized as specialties in Washington: Patents, Admiralty, and Tax. The rule governing specialization requires that, before an attorney can claim to be a specialist in any other area, that lawyer must have received formal receipt of a certificate, award or formal recognition by an appropriate organization: “A lawyer shall not state or imply that a lawyer is a specialist in a particular field of law, except upon issuance of an identifying certificate, award, or recognition by a group, organization, or association…” (RPC 7.4).
Before you can refer to “recognition by a group” in advertising you must: specifically identify any group you are claiming recognized your work, and the Supreme Court of Washington does not recognize certification of specialties in the practice of law” (RPC 7.4(d)(2)-(3)).
Unfortunately, with the explosion of on line advertising, it has become impossible for the WSBA to thoroughly review it all. That is why it is important for consumers to critically analyze the content of advertising. If a lawyer claims to be a criminal law expert, does the ad point out that the Washington State Supreme Court does not recognize that specialty? Does
the ad identify what certificate has been issued to the lawyer (and by whom) or what organization has formally recognized them?
Above all, beware lawyers who brag about paid classes, thinly disguised as expert recognition by major law schools (who allow their buildings to be used by private companies that sell credentials to get around this rule.) As a Stanford Lawyer, it really bothers me to see so many lawyers implying that they went to top flight law schools, simply because they paid some company to sit in a building for some summer class in some fancy law school that they never actually attended.
At the end of the day it is all about the quality of the attorney’s work. Before you hire an attorney, ask them how many cases they have handled, how many trials they have done, what their success rate was in those trials, whether they have ever been disciplined by the WSBA, and generally determine what their actual experience level actually is, as opposed to how they try to make it look on line. You will be glad you did when you are in court, sitting next to them, and suddenly they can’t hide behind grandiose and inaccurate claims they make on their web sites. Which, of course, violates the basic rule on how lawyers describe themselves: “A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.” (RPC 7.1) Don’t wait until you reach this point. It might be too late.