By: Lori Christman, Keith Porterfield, and Brandon Unterreiner
In Georgia, "a lawyer may advertise services through public media, such as a telephone directory, newspaper or other periodical, radio or television, or through written communication not involving personal contact". This is limited by O.C.G.A. § 10-1-427 which prohibits false or misleading legal advertising in those media. However what about the Internet? How should web sites, home pages, or discussion group contributions on the Internet be classified and regulated? Currently, the Georgia State Bar is considering the adoption of stricter rules on lawyer advertising in an effort to prevent further harm that bad legal adverting inflicts on the legal profession. At this point, the Georgia Bar is working to draw adequate empirical data in order to justify restrictions on commercial speech. While states are taking a renewed interest in the ethics of legal advertising, the issue of where advertising on the Internet, or "Netvertising", fits in needs to be included.
Upon taking a closer look at the ethics of legal Netvertising, it is clear that advertising on the Internet is actually a broad category which contains numerous individual legal and ethical issues. Some examples of these issues are: Is a web site on the Internet actually advertising? Is the informative nature of most web sites considered to be "giving legal advice"? Does the interactive/informative nature of some web sites constitute an attorney/client relationship? Does the interactive nature of many web sites and discussion groups create an implied waiver of confidentiality? Does the world wide audience of the Internet create jurisdictional problems for lawyers with web sites on the Internet? Is a Georgia lawyer who gives information on a web site, that is read in South Carolina by a South Carolina resident, practicing law without a license? Is a lawyer who practices Federal law able to have a web site immune from the problem of the unauthorized practice of law in other states simply because the lawyer practices federal law and not state law? Will communicating on the Internet disqualify a lawyer and/or the lawyer's firm from representation of other potential litigants?
This paper will discuss these questions, consider various judical and legislative efforts to answer them, and propose rules and statutes that might help states better regulate the growing field of netvertising.