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A Florida Supreme Court opinion issued last week could lead to sweeping changes for many current and future lawyer websites. The sixteen-page opinion, In re: Amendments to the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar—Subchapter 4-7, Lawyer Advertising Rules [PDF], effectively wiped clean Subchapter 4-7 of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar. Subchapter 4-7 covers the rules that control how lawyers may distribute information about their legal services, namely, how lawyers can legally advertise. With this opinion, the Court struck down all the current rules and adopted an entire chapter of redrafted and renumbered rules proposed by The Florida Bar.

The biggest change? Lawyer websites are now treated the same as other advertising media, like the traditional advertising forums of television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. As Justice Pariente explained in her dissent, under the old rules, specific types of advertising that did “little more than provide sound bites about the advertising lawyer or law firm” were regulated—advertising that provided “useful information to allow the public to make an informed decision about hiring a lawyer or law firm” was not.

Lawyer websites fell into this second category of “information provided upon request” and therefore escaped Subchapter 4-7 scrutiny. Otherwise prohibited information, like statements that characterized the quality of a lawyer’s legal services, information about past results, and testimonials, were fair game, as long as they were on a lawyer’s website.

Now, that exemption is gone, and lawyer websites will be subject to the same rules and regulations as lawyer radio ads, television commercials, or print ads. The new amendments go into effect on May 1, 2013, at 12:01 a.m.

These rule changes could mean many Florida lawyer websites will have to undergo extensive and rapid revisions, in order to be compliant by May 1. Even multistate law firms must take note of the new rules—they apply to the portions of a multistate firm, and its website, that directly relate to the provision of legal services in Florida by its members who are admitted to The Florida Bar.

The catalyst for these extensive changes was the Court’s request in 2007 for a comprehensive study of lawyer advertising in In re: Amendments to the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar—Advertising, 971 So. 2d 763 (Fla. 2007). In that case, the Court directed the Bar to “undertake an additional and contemporary study of lawyer advertising, which [would] include public evaluation and comments about lawyer advertising.”

The Florida Bar considered state and federal court rulings, including opinions from the Supreme Court of the United States and the Florida Supreme Court, accepted input from attorneys, conducted a survey on the public’s attitudes about lawyer advertising, and took suggestions from members of the public who serve on the Bar’s Citizens Forum.

After completing its study, the Bar found that the old rules were ineffective, and to better prevent the dissemination of misleading and unduly manipulative information to the public, new rules had to be drafted. The Florida Supreme Court agreed and deleted all the rules in the existing Subchapter 4-7 of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar, including the amendments adopted in In re: Amendments to the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar – Rule 4-7.6, Computer Accessed Communications, 24 So. 3d 172 (Fla. 2009).

The Court adopted the Bar’s proposed rules and it created a new numbering system to try to mitigate confusion. “Because the new rules are substantially different from the current rules, use of the same rule numbers could create confusion in case law for many years. Therefore, for existing precedent to be understood and applied in future cases, we [renumber] the new rules.” The new rules will be renumbered as Subchapters 4-7.11 through 4-7.23.

Joey Chindamo