LinkedIn last week announced a “rethinking” of its endorsement feature, first launched in 2012. Starting with its mobile app, the service says it has “improved targeting,” so people looking at your profile will see the endorsements for you that are most relevant to them. Coming on the heels of this development, a new Ohio ethics opinion reminds us that we should be monitoring endorsements and other kinds of testimonials to ensure they are within ethical bounds.
LinkedIn endorsements — power of suggestion
According to LinkedIn (which has achieved near-universal penetration of the lawyer user market), more than 10 billion endorsements have been shared on its platform in the last four years. For the uninformed, in LinkedIn-speak, an “endorsement” results from one of your connections clicking a link on your profile page, saying that you have “skill” in a list of areas that you have created and pre-set. For instance, 50 people might say that you are skilled in “legal research,” and their little profile pictures (if they have them) are arrayed next to the endorsement.
Apparently, LinkedIn (which was acquired this summer by Microsoft) will now harness the power of its millions of users to calculate which of your skills would be most relevant to someone searching for you.
Clearly, endorsements can spotlight your particular accomplishments and skill set, but of course they come with some ethics considerations to be aware of.
Trust, but verify
First, you are responsible for monitoring testimonials and reviews of clients that are posted on websites that you control, as Advisory Opinion 2016-8, issued October 7 by the Ohio Supreme Court’s Board of Professional Conduct points out.
The Board said that websites that permit clients and others to “endorse” a lawyer are advertisements, and lawyers must ensure that they comply with the Buckeye State’s versions of Model Rules 7.1 and 7.2. In particular, “false, misleading, or non-verified testimonials in the form of client comments or endorsements should be removed by the lawyer when he or she has control over the content of the profile.” (Ohio’s rule imports from its prior Code of Professional Responsibility the prohibition on claims that are nonverifiable, i.e. not capable of being factually substantiated.)
So, if you have listed yourself on your LinkedIn profile (which you do control) as having skill in “Tax Law,” and a client “endorses” you for that skill, and you indeed have that skill, you presumably are within the bounds of good ethical practice. (Don’t scoff at this seemingly-self-evident proposition. Some lawyers in South Carolina got in ethics trouble when their marketing company set up a website that claimed skillsets that they didn’t have.)
But if you set up your LinkedIn skill section to invite endorsements for being the “World’s Greatest Corporate Advisor,” that presumably would not be ethical, at least in Ohio, since such a claim would be non-verifiable. And if you set up the section to claim skill in tax law but, like me, barely got through your law school tax course (thanks for the courtesy C+, Professor Lou Geneva), then you are definitely outside the bounds.
Second, if you accept endorsements and always “endorse back” the person who has endorsed you, you should think about your state’s version of Model Rule 7.2(b), which says that “A lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services…” with some non-relevant exceptions. If you make your own endorsement contingent or conditional on receiving one in return (or vice versa), then you would potentially run afoul of Rule 7.2(b). Quid pro quo endorsements are obviously ethically suspect, as my St. Louis-based ethics friend Michael Downey points out in this 2013 interview.
Know the rules of your road
LinkedIn endorsements are optional — I simply haven’t set up my own profile to accept them, for instance. But if you like endorsements for their potential to inform people about you and your skills, be aware of your jurisdiction’s rules and ethics opinions on the subject, and use endorsements wisely.