The real deal with lawyer websites in India – the dos and the don’ts

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As per the rules of the Bar Council of India, we are not permitted to solicit work and advertise. By clicking on the “I agree” below, the user acknowledges the following:

  • there has been no advertisement, personal communication, solicitation, invitation or inducement of any sort whatsoever from us or any of our members to solicit any work through this website;
  • the user wishes to gain more information about us for his/her own information and use;
  • the information about us is provided to the user only on his/her specific request and any information obtained or materials downloaded from this website is completely at the user’s volition and any transmission, receipt or use of this site would not create any lawyer-client relationship.

The information provided under this website is solely available at your request for informational purposes only, should not be interpreted as soliciting or advertisement. We are not liable for any consequence of any action taken by the user relying on material / information provided under this website. In cases where the user has any legal issues, he/she in all cases must seek independent legal advice.

This is an example of a standard disclaimer that is used by lawyers on their websites. If you click agree, you can proceed to the website. If you disagree, you are redirected to a blank page.

To understand why the disclaimer is there on almost all lawyer websites in India, we need to understand Part V of the Bar Council of India Rules which explains an advocate’s duty towards one’s colleagues. It specifically prohibits an advocate from doing the following:

solicit work or advertise, either directly or indirectly, whether by circulars, advertisements, touts, personal communications, interviews not warranted by personal relations, furnishing or inspiring newspaper comments or producing his photographs to be published in connection with cases in which he has been engaged or concerned.”

In October 2008, the Bar Council of India, through a resolution, noted that maintaining a website giving only basic information about the names and number of lawyers in a law firm, the contact details and areas of practice would not amount to “soliciting work or advertise.” What also followed was a Schedule that listed the format for the information. (See http://www.barcouncilofindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/BCIRulesPartVonwards.pdf for the complete rules on the issue and the schedule to the website exception.)

At the core of the Bar Council Rules is the idea of solicitation and advertising – as long as you are not doing that, you’re fine. So the primary question isn’t whether you can maintain a website; the primary question is whether you are soliciting or advertising through your website.

The Black’s Law Dictionary defines solicitation as an act of asking, enticing or making a request. Even indirect solicitation occurs only when an attorney contacts a person who he believes is likely to need legal representation; like an accident victim in case of ambulance chasers. Advertisement is defined as “Notice given in a manner designed to attract public attention; information communicated to the public, or to an individual concerned, by means of handbills or the newspaper.”

So, when does a website really start to fall under the definitions of solicitation and advertising? While there is no definitive guideline on this – there are some basic pointers which can help you decide if you are indeed crossing the line.

Can I create a website for myself or my firm?

Yes, you can. The BCI itself says so.

Think of your website as your office on the web – which never shuts down. As long as you are not advertising your website or putting up content which would amount to advertising and solicitation, you are safe.

Can I publish articles and newsletters on my website?

The BCI does not expressly allow it – but doesn’t prohibit it either.

The Rules are silent on this. Express permission has been given for websites where you give out your name, contact information, areas of practice, enrollment details etc. However, many lawyers/law firms have been publishing articles and newsletters both online and offline. If it is permissible to write a legal article in a journal or a magazine, doing the same online should be no different. Again, the test here is the nature of content.

While it would be great to receive a clarification from the BCI itself, as long as the nature of your article is not advertorial; publishing it online or in a journal/magazine should not be a violation of the Rules. The BCI Rules mention that furnishing or inspiring newspaper comments on your own cases is a form of indirect soliciting. Hence, it will be a good idea to not publish an article that comments on one your own cases. It may be tempting to let people know how well you handled a very complicated cases, it would be a violation nonetheless.

To get a clearer picture, it will be helpful to understand how websites work. Your website is a set of files and folder that lie on a computer which is connected to the Internet. Every computer connected to the Internet has an IP address. When a user puts in your domain name in a browser, the browser then finds out the address of the computer where your files are located and makes a request to access the files and then display the contents to the user. Therefore, any content on any website is displayed to a user only upon request.

An article, which is on your website, is displayed to the user only when he makes a request to see it.

Can I send Press Releases or Articles by bulk email to several people?

Yes and No.

If someone has requested you to send them Press Releases/Articles/Newsletter, you can. Sending it to several people in one go when they do not know you or have not requested to receive it would amount to spam and would be akin to advertising/soliciting which the Rules prohibit.

As a lawyer publishing articles on your website, you should provide the visitors with a mechanism to sign up for newsletters and new articles. There are free services like FeedBurner by Google which can easily be integrated into any website and will manage subscriptions beautifully.

Should I allow search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing to show my website in search results?

Yes.

With the penetration of mobile devices and internet increasing by the day, more and more people are turning to search engines to find information – and lawyers are no different. Google data shows that the queries looking for lawyers in India are on the rise and if you block the search engines from including your website in their results, you will be missing out on a lot of people who are looking to find information on a lawyer like you.

Here’s a table that lists some of the top law firms in India, their websites, the average number of people who visit their websites every month and the percentage of those users who find the website in search results. As you can see, the search percentages are more than 50 for each one of them.

Firm Website Monthly Visits* Search Traffic % *
Nishith Desai www.nishithdesai.com 50000 79.78
JSA http://www.jsalaw.com/ 20000 52.52
Luthra and Luthra http://www.luthra.com/ 15000 65.67
Lakshmikumaran and Sridharan http://www.lakshmisri.com/ 15000 56.61
Fox and Mandal http://www.foxmandal.com/ 4000 72.39
Khaitan and Co. http://www.khaitanco.com/ (Only Contact Info) 3000 81.66
Anand and Anand http://www.anandandanand.com/ 3000 51.27
Trilegal http://trilegal.com/Trilegal/Trilegal.html (Only contact Info) 2000 51.65
Amarchand Mangaldas www.amarchand.com (No Active website) N.A. N.A.
AZB http://www.azbpartners.com/ (No Active Website) N.A. N.A.

* Source: www.similarweb.com [As on November 14, 2014]

Should I buy Google Search Listings (GoogleAds) so that people can find my website when they run a search?

Having your website found in Google’s search results is not wrong or against the BCI Rules. However, buying preferential rankings is as it clearly amounts to advertising and would be unethical as well as a violation of the Rules.

While Google paid listings may look like any other search result, they come at a price and are considered to be an advertisement. It is unfortunate/unethical that some lawyer websites are buying Google Ads (I have even seen some banner ads linking to law firm websites), but it will be better to stay away from these practices.

In a nutshell, you can and you should get a professional website for your law firm/law practice but stay away from advertising and marketing tactics. The content on your website should be informative and not advertorial in nature. The disclaimer doesn’t really help much if in spirit you are violating the BCI Rules.

In my next post, I will try to highlight the lifecycle of a website leading to a client acquisition for a lawyer and how it’s the authoritative, fresh and relevant content on your website which would bring you clients and not just a flashy website.

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Categories: For Lawyers, Technology