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Is Your Website Going to Get You Disbarred?

Guest Post by Attorney Lee Rosen (From the NL Archives)

The other day I stumbled across a word on a website that could get a lawyer disciplined by our state bar. One word.

You see, I spend way too much time browsing the web. It’s an addiction. But it’s worse than that. I don’t just look at the pages on the web—I look at the page source data. I spend time digging into the code that creates the page, you see. I look at the HTML and the metadata hidden in the pages. Your browser is fully capable of showing you what I’m seeing. A few keystrokes will take you to the jumble of letters, numbers, and programming language that make a page look like a page.You may have heard discussion about meta tags. Meta tags are words and phrases built into the website but only visible when you switch from the normal page view to a reveal codes type of view that gives you a behind-the-scenes look at the page. This is where the page title shows up along with the page description. Some search engines use this information to help determine how to list the site in the directory.

For many of us, our website developers insert the meta information in the pages, and it’s done without our knowledge. We ask the developers to build a nice site for us and to do whatever is required to achieve rankings in the search engines.They do their best. Their best, however, usually doesn’t include a review of our state Rules of Professional Responsibility. After all, they are web people, not lawyers.Back to my story—what was the word I came across?“Specialize.” That’s a word our state bar prohibits. We can’t use it to describe our practices unless we’re board certified. I found it right up at the top of a website, hidden in a meta description. I guess you can’t say it was hidden because as I searched around, I realized that the Google description of the site had been pulled straight from the meta description for all the world (and our state bar) to see. Ouch.

Using the wrong word is just one part of the trouble meta tags can cause. There’s been some trademark litigation about businesses using the names of other businesses in their meta tags to steal their traffic via Google by ranking for those terms in the search engines. Some state bars have considered the propriety of that issue. A fair amount has been written on that topic. Some attorneys have discussed the propriety of including city names in meta descriptions when a lawyer doesn’t have a physical office in that city. Some lawyers have included the names of attorneys in other firms in their meta tags, hoping to steal traffic intended for those lawyers. Meta tags can cause you trouble.What you need to do is periodically check your own site. Read the tags. Make sure there isn’t anything in there that shouldn’t be in there. As I mentioned, each browser has a different item in the menu for looking at the page source code. I use Chrome on a Mac, and I pick View/Developer/View Source from my menu.

Your browser will be different. If you can’t figure it out, then check out eHow, which has good instructions for Internet Explorer and Firefox, among others.Ultimately, everything on your website is your responsibility. You can’t blame the web people. You’ve got to keep an eye on what you’re saying, especially if you’re saying it in code.

Attorney Lee Rosen has practiced family law for more than twenty years. With three offices, Rosen Law Firm serves Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte North Carolina. Rosen is the Law Practice Management Editor of the ABA Family Advocate and recipient of the ABA 2010 James Keane Award for excellence in eLawyering. He is the former Chair of the Law Practice Management Section of the North Carolina Bar Association, a frequent speaker and is often sought out by the media as a source of family law insight and commentary. I encourage you to check out Lee's great blog Divorce Discourse.  It's a great source for practical advice you can apply to your own law practice. Our warmest thanks to Attorney Rosen

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