By: John P. Paone, Jr.
Years ago, our Supreme Court determined that it is in the interest of the public to have attorneys in various legal disciplines certified. According to the Court, the certification program is an effort both to protect consumers from false advertising and to raise the level of competence of attorneys in our State. Only after undergoing a vigorous vetting process that includes a clean ethics record, judicial and peer review, requisite years and experience in the field of practice, the acquisition of continuing legal education credits over and above those required to practice law, and after passage of a written exam are attorneys certified in New Jersey. Over time, certification has evolved into a kind of gold standard and a resource the public can rely upon in a world where social media and the internet can transmit all types of misinformation and spurious claims regarding attorney qualifications.
But now, an internet advertising practice threatens to undermine the certification program and, in the process, confuse the public. Attorneys who are not certified can purchase from Google the names of certified attorneys as search engine terms. This results in members of the public attempting to search for Attorney X who they have learned is certified and of stellar reputation, and instead finding Attorney Y in their search results. It matters not that Attorney Y is not certified, because Attorney Y paid money to purchase the name of Attorney X as an internet search term. Thus, Attorney Y will appear in search results of a potential client looking for Attorney X.
I have little doubt that if certified attorneys were selling their names to non-certified attorneys to divert internet traffic, the Court would easily recognize such action to be deceitful and prejudicial to the administration of justice. Why then should it be acceptable for non-certified practitioners to purchase a certified attorney’s name from Google? One would think it self-evident that the purchase of another attorney’s name can only serve to achieve a result which is deceitful, improper, and unethical. The State Bar of North Carolina has already banned this practice as dishonest conduct. Incredibly, however, a ruling by our own Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics, Opinion 735, would permit such unscrupulous behavior for attorneys in New Jersey.
To its credit, the Court recently appointed The Honorable Jeffrey R. Jablonski as a Special Master to review this matter. I would respectfully submit that the Special Master should be tasked to answer the following question: “Why would someone purchase the name of a fellow practitioner in the first place?” The obvious answer to this question leads to the conclusion that if the polestar of our legal system is to protect the public, there can be no justification for such conduct. Attorneys have always been held to a higher standard than that which is condoned in the marketplace. It must be made clear that the tenents of professionalism prohibit attorneys from engaging in this type of manipulation of internet search.
Finally, to protect the certification program, the Court must not allow the name and reputation of certified attorneys to be used as fodder for an internet advertisement scheme designed to deceive potential clients. We know that practitioners cannot falsely claim to be certified when they are not…neither should they be able to purchase from Google the name of a certified attorney to garner the attention of the unsuspecting public.
John P. Paone, Jr. is Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Law Attorney, a past Chair of the Supreme Court Board on Attorney Certification, and the Managing Partner of the Law Offices of Paone, Zaleski & Murphy with offices in Woodbridge and Red Bank.