Buying ads on another attorney's name is about to be a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct in North Carolina.
Our North Carolina State Bar has been busy recently. It has just published a proposed Formal Opinion that bars lawyers from running search engine ads targeting another lawyer's name. It may soon adopt the opinion after the time for comment has passed.
It's making it a violation of the rules to buy ads targeting another lawyer's name. It's prohibiting Lawyer X from running ads targeting searches for Lawyer Y's name.
Unfortunately, the enforcement of rules like the one proposed may be tricky.
Here's the scenario:
Lawyer X is trying to grow his practice. He's running ads on Google AdWords (the little ads you see when you do a Google search). In setting up his campaign, he picks some keywords including “Raleigh Divorce Lawyer.” That's a good search term, he assumes, to get in front of consumers searching for a lawyer in Raleigh.
His ads start running, and he begins to get some clicks and ultimately, some clients.
Then he gets some unpleasant news in the form of a grievance from the North Carolina State Bar.
The grievance, in my hypothetical scenario, was filed by one of his competitors when she noticed that a Google search for her name plus the phrase “Raleigh divorce lawyer” displayed ads for the other lawyer. For instance, if you Google search “Lee Rosen Raleigh divorce lawyer” (that's the screenshot of the search results page above), you're going to see my listing in the organic results, plus you're going to see lots of ads appearing around the periphery of the page. Those ads are purchased by other lawyers.
Are those advertising lawyers targeting “Lee Rosen”? Probably not. They're probably targeting the keyword phrase “Raleigh divorce lawyer,” but their ads come up because their phrase is attached to my name in the search. If you do a search on “Lee Rosen” alone, then you're not going to see the ads. (You may, however, see a Morgan Stanley ad, interestingly.) However, it's possible and indeed likely that a lawyer wouldn't target just the lawyer's name. The lawyer will likely target the name combined with some descriptive words. It's cheaper to target specific phrases than broad phrases, so it's good advertising practice to narrow the keyword phrase targeted.
Many Google searchers looking for me type my name coupled with something like “divorce lawyer” or “NC divorce lawyer.” They do that because it narrows down the results and is more likely to give them what they're looking for. They will almost always use descriptive words when they need to find someone with a very common name.
The bottom line is that it's really hard to tell what keywords the advertiser targeted based on the ads that appear. It's exceedingly complicated.
As lawyers become aware of this Opinion, I suspect they're going to check their names and see whether anyone is targeting their names. When the ads pop up, they're going to assume their competition is violating the rules. Emotions will rule, and grievances will be filed: I predict chaos.
When regulators get involved in advertising and commercial speech, things get tricky. This is a complex issue involving significant legal and technological challenges. Be aware that regulatory authorities are reviewing these concerns and attempting to intervene in appropriate ways. Be aware that you can get caught in the crossfire.
If you're endeavoring to grow your business using advertising on the Internet, you should pay close attention to these developments, keep ethics counsel on retainer, and stay involved in and aware of the activities of your regulators. It's getting tricky out there: pay attention.