As a lawyer you’ve perfected your craft—you’re a pro at navigating complex issues and can easily manage client expectations. You’ve developed the sort of robust client base that comes from years of training and even more time spent in practice. You might even say that you are a legal expert.
Chances are your local law society thinks differently.
It often comes as a surprise to those in legal services that lawyers are not permitted to describe themselves as experts—after all, a lawyer’s job is to know the law. But that is the case in many jurisdictions.
The Law Society of Ontario sets out in its Rules of Professional Conduct that a lawyer cannot refer to him or herself as a specialist, as it is considered a specific designation:
“A lawyer shall not advertise that the lawyer is a specialist in a specified field unless the lawyer has been so certified by the Law Society.”
As with client endorsements, at issue is the accurate representation of the lawyer to a client. In the view of the Society, which also runs a separate Certified Specialist Program, claiming to be a specialist without the appropriate designation may compel a client to make a choice in legal representation based on faulty knowledge. Thus, there are restrictions on the sorts of self-evaluated claims lawyers can make with respect to their ability.
Are Specialists Equivalent to Experts?
While the Law Society of Ontario only suggests that the term “specialist” is of concern, other jurisdictions see it differently and lawyers should take note.
The Alberta Law Society expands the definition, stating:
“A lawyer who is not a certified specialist is not permitted to use any designation from which a person might reasonably conclude that the lawyer is a certified specialist. A claim that a lawyer is a specialist or expert, or specializes in an area of law, implies that the lawyer has met some objective standard or criteria of expertise, presumably established or recognized by a Law Society.”
Other provinces also have more stringent guidelines around the use of the term “specialist” and other synonyms. In New Brunswick, the Law Society broadens the definition to include “the words ‘specialist’, ‘specializing’, ‘expert’, ‘expertise’, or synonyms thereof” (§4.3-1).
It is clear that the issue revolves around the use of nouns which imply specialized knowledge, with various jurisdictions seeking to clarify how lawyers can—and cannot—describe their ability.
Can You have Expertise?
One might ask if there is a difference between being an expert, or just having expertise in an area. Like the question above, the answer is jurisdiction specific. In Ontario, it was found by the Law Society Tribunal Appeal Panel that there was a significant different between the noun “specialist” and the verb “specialize.” The former was found to reflect an actual designation and be in contravention of the Code, but the verb only reflects having done substantial work in an area—drawing a clear distinction between the two. Similar rulings have also set precedent in the United States, where the issue landed in front of the Supreme Court.
Marketing Your Knowledge
While it may seem like it is only semantics, using the wrong terminology could land you a reprimand from your professional ruling body. Lawyers would do wise to steer clear of this potential minefield by shifting their language. While you may not be able to call yourself an expert, you can certainly say that you “focus on,” “advise on,” “have counselled clients in [your target industry],” or “have represented on matters concerned with [practice area].” Check your local code before claiming that you have “expertise” or “specialized knowledge” or other terms that are subject to regulation.
Legal marketing has its own set of rules and guidelines that govern the advertising of legal services. As a lawyer, you want to ensure that you are accurately representing yourself to clients. This principle extends to using terms like “expert” or “specialist” in your marketing materials. While it is certainly one of the more overlooked rules, lawyers and legal marketers would do well to consider the implications of using certain terminology when developing their communications.