If you have a lawyer blog, you may wonder just how much client information you can use for it without violating legal ethics. Specifically, how much potentially embarrassing client information can you use? Hunter v. Virginia State Bar is a legal ethics case that may very well affect your lawyer blog.
Horace Hunter’s Lawyer Blog Focused on Trial Law
Horace Hunter is a trial lawyer at the center of the case. Mr. Hunter used his lawyer blog to highlight cases in which he was successful. He also posted client information that could be found in public court records. The Virginia State Bar didn’t appreciate the candor of Mr. Hunter’s blog. The blog, by the way, did not have any disclaimers related to advertising.
Virginia State Bar Alleged Hunter Violated Legal Ethics
The Virginia State Bar investigated Mr. Hunter because of his lawyer blog. They alleged he violated client confidentiality rules and attorney advertising rules. Virginia legal ethics are practically identical to the Model Rules. Mr. Hunter was accused of violating Rules 1.6, 7.1, and 7.2.
Mr. Hunter fought the allegations. Eventually, his case was heard by the Virginia Supreme Court. The majority of the Court held that the First Amendment protects a lawyer who shares information about a client, including their name, if the information is available through public records related to the case. The Court held that the lawyer has just as much protection as a member of the public or media when it comes to sharing information that could be heard in an open court room. It doesn’t matter if the information is embarrassing for the client. It’s still public information.
In reference to the allegation that Mr. Hunter violated legal ethics related to attorney advertising, the Court held that his lawyer blog is a mix between commercial and political speech that isn’t entitled to First Amendment protections because the blog posts related to cases were misleading to readers. Mr. Hunter was ordered to post disclaimers to comply with Virginia’s advertising rules on any post that featured a case.
Should a Lawyer Blog Share Embarrassing Client Information?
An attorney has a duty of loyalty and confidence toward their client. Should a lawyer blog share embarrassing client information? While the Court was clear that it can be done provided the information was already divulged in a courtroom or part of public record, lawyers should consider how doing so could affect their relationship with the client and how they may be perceived by the public in the future.
One important factor to keep in mind about Mr. Hunter’s lawyer blog and its posts that mentioned specific cases is that Mr. Hunter only wrote about cases that were concluded. He did not write about cases that were active. Even with that being said, it’s important to consider how your professional reputation may be affected.
Use Appropriate Disclaimers as Required in Your Jurisdiction
If you’re utilizing a lawyer blog on your website, make sure that you’re using the proper disclaimer as required in your jurisdiction. As highlighted in Hunter, disclaimers matter. It’s likely that the blog-as-advertising issue will also be heard in other states, but you might as well get ahead of the curve and do what you can to protect yourself from an ethical complaint.
If you receive an ethics complaint from the California Bar and you’re not sure where you should start, check out The State Bar Playbook. This is Megan’s interactive and easy to use guide (and community!) that will help guide you through the process from receipt of the complaint all the way through the appeals process!