Traps for Lawyers Using Keyword Advertising

Any lawyers out there thinking about using keyword advertising?  Be careful. A recent decision from the Supreme Court of South Carolina illustrates the point.  A South Carolina lawyer named Zachary Naert handled cases involving litigation over time share units.  Naert and his firm filed a number of cases against a company involved in the timeshare business.  

Naert then contracted with Google to purchase keyword ads.  The key word ads are triggered by specific terms.  If a Google user puts the term in a search, the ad triggered by that term appears on the results page.   Naert used the company name, along with the names of three attorneys representing the company as key word terms.  So when Google users typed in “Attorney A” they’d see an ad that simply said this:  

Timeshare Attorney in SC – Ripped off? Lied to? Scammed?
Hilton Head Island, SC Free Consult

The South Carolina Supreme Court concluded that Naert’s ad campaign was unethical. And the reasons are instructive.  

First, the ads that initially popped up didn’t list Naert, his firm or any identifying information.  That violates South Carolina ethical rules which require that every lawyer advertisement include the name and office address of at least one lawyer responsible for its content.  Pretty black and white on that one.   

The next violation was a little less clear cut.  A South Carolina lawyer pledges “to opposing parties and their counsel fairness, integrity and civility in all written communications.”  In the court’s view, linking the company and its lawyers names to phrases like “ripped off”, “lied to” and “scammed” fell short of that lofty pledge.  According to the South Carolina Court, the ad used the opposing  counsels’ name “in a derogatory manner.”     

There is an argument to be made that the keywords did no such thing.  The Internet user isn’t aware that the attorney’s name triggers the ad. So there really isn’t a direct connection (if there’s any connection at all) in the consumer’s name.  And arguably, the nasty words aren’t directed to the opposing lawyers in any event.   

Naert apparently decided to surrender unconditionally and admit the violations. So in this case, we don’t know how my argument would have worked.  But the opinion offers a good warning to any lawyers thinking about online advertising.  Be careful.  And really think hard about calling anyone a liar or scammer.