The Maryland Court of Appeals is considering amendments to Rule 7.4 of the Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct that would permit a Maryland personal injury attorney — or any lawyer for that matter — who has been certified as a specialist in a particular area of law to hold themselves out to the public as a specialist.
What would the attorney’s qualifications be for specialization? I think this may be the challenge that led the court to defer ruling on this issue, which they did last week.
The history of lawyer’s advertising has been telling lawyers to keep their mouths shut. This changed in 1977 with the Supreme Court’s opinion in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona upheld a challenge by Arizona lawyers, John Bates (anyone watch Downtown Abbey?) and Van O’Steen to a state law that prohibited all commercial advertising by lawyers. Certainly, this lead to an onslaught of television commercials from Maryland attorneys: Stephen L. Miles (“Let’s talk about it”), Saiontz & Kirk (“If you have a phone, you have a lawyer) and their imitators looking to grab a lion’s share of the personal injury market.
But the Maryland courts have kept tight restrictions on what lawyers can say in this advertising. The Court of Appeals, in Rule 7.4, dictated that lawyers could say that he or she did or did not practice in particular fields of law but could not use the word “specialist.” Many other states went in a different direction, allowing paths to certification for counsel that wanted to claim a specialization.
What Is the Harm of Lawyers Claims Specialization?
What is the big deal? I think one big problem is figuring out who the specialist are. My first thought when I read about this is: I’m going to have to jump through whatever hoops are required to become a specialist, if they create such a rule in Maryland. So one group opposed might be lawyers with established reputations as specialists without using the “S” word who do not want to have to go thought the effort (and I’m sure cost) of getting the specialist certification. It is also a little silly, right? Should Billy Murphy have to jump through hoops to prove he specializes in Maryland personal injury law or can the court just take judicial notice of it?
Similarly, I think sole practitioners and rural attorneys might suffer if big city lawyers start claiming specialization; since sole practitioners or rural attorneys may not have the resources or the requisite experience to make the same claim. (The counter argument to this is rather obvious, right?) The final argument against this is the bureaucracy and politics that is going to come with determining who achieves this designation.
[Note: There are a lot of lawyers already making this claim on the Internet without anyone challenging them. Just Google it. So one hidden upside would be leveling the playing field from people that just ignore the rules.]
Anyway, the Maryland high court has tabled last seek a ruling on this issue until next year.
My opinion? Well, my firm handles one kind of case: personal injury claims on behalf of victims. My firm has a track record that we shamelessly brag about and our resumes show our experience and ability in this field. I don’t think I need to put that particular label on my expertise. But it wouldn’t hurt either.
Put me down as a strongly neutral on the issue of whether lawyers should be able to claim specialization, in a particular area of law.