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2000 Formal Ethics Opinion 1

April 14, 2000

Advertising a Verdict Record

 

Opinion rules that, in the absence of a full explanation, advertising a lawyer's or a law firm's record in obtaining favorable verdicts is misleading and prohibited.

 

Inquiry:

 

Law Firm is setting up a site or "web page" on the world wide web.
The web page will provide information about the law firm and the members of the firm.
May Law Firm include the following paragraph in its web page?

 

The attorneys in Law Firm's medical malpractice group have been enormously successful, consistently obtaining verdicts and settlements for their clients that are among the largest reported North Carolina verdicts and settlements each year.
Most medical negligence cases involve complex scientific issues and are vigorously defended.
Settlements generally only occur after litigation has ensued and all sides have fully explored the issues through discovery.
We have collected all of the verdicts we have obtained, although some verdicts have been collected only after we have been successful not only at trial, but also on appeal.
Our past successes should not be construed as a representation that we will be successful with any particular case in the future, and not every case in which we have been involved has resulted in a favorable outcome.
The medical malpractice group has successfully represented clients in cases of infant mortality and morbidity, eye injury, paralysis, infectious disease, loss of limb, general surgery, physical disability, medication errors, and wrongful death.
The medical malpractice group has also successfully defended University Medical Center and its physicians against medical malpractice actions.
Finally, the medical malpractice group has successfully represented clients before the North Carolina Supreme Court and Court of Appeals and, in some instances, has been instrumental in shaping North Carolina law.

 

Opinion:

 

A web page, like any other communication or advertisement about a lawyer's or a law firm's services, must be truthful and not misleading.
Rule 7.1 of the Revised Rules of Professional Conduct and RPC 239.
Generally, statements about a lawyer's or a law firm's record in obtaining favorable verdicts is considered a prohibited communication in that such statements may create "unjustified expectations about the results the lawyer can achieve" in violation of Rule 7.1(b).
However, if the information is provided in context, the potential for this information to mislead a reader may be avoided.
99 Formal Ethics Opinion 7.
To put a verdict record in context, information about the lawyer's or the law firm's record must include disclosure of the following: the lawyer's or firm's history of obtaining unfavorable, as well as favorable, verdicts and settlements; the lawyer's or firm's success in actually collecting favorable verdicts; the types of cases handled and their complexity; whether liability and/or damages were contested; and whether the opposing party or parties were represented by legal counsel.
In addition, the verdict record must disclose the period of time examined.
Finally, the communication must include a statement that the outcome of a particular case cannot be predicated upon a lawyer's or a law firm's past results.

 

If information to be disclosed is voluminous, the communication may state that a list of all cases handled by the lawyer or law firm during a disclosed time period, including the required background information and explanation, will be mailed free of charge upon request.
However, the availability of such a mailing does not relieve the lawyer or the law firm of the obligation to provide a context in an advertisement or communication if it contains any reference to a verdict record.

 

In the instant inquiry, Law Firm's web page appropriately discloses that most of its cases were defended, that the cases involved complex medical issues, that all verdicts obtained were collected, and that past success is not a predictor of future success in any particular case.

 

However, subjective statements, such as references to Law Firm as "enormously successful" and "consistently obtaining verdicts and settlements" as well as the statement that Law Firm's verdicts and settlements are "among the largest reported in North Carolina each year," are misleading.
Although Law Firm has made an effort to avoid creating unjustified expectations, the web page does not provide enough explanation of Law Firm's record to avoid misleading a visitor to the website.
Providing a complete record by mail, disclosing the number of cases handled each year, the number of favorable and unfavorable settlements obtained, and the time frame examined, are necessary to bring the web page into compliance with the requirements of the Revised Rules of Professional Conduct.

 

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