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Lawyer aggregator websites ban? Of fake news & the perennial confusion around whether lawyers can (and do) advertise

News reports of Silf cracking down on lawyer aggregators appear a little premature...
This post, which was a copy of a 2013 article, went semi-viral earlier this year. It is not quite accurate...
This post, which was a copy of a 2013 article, went semi-viral earlier this year. It is not quite accurate...

Indian lawyers listing their profiles on a number of websites, apps and aggregators are guilty of “surrogate advertising”, Bhasin & Co managing partner Lalit Bhasin told the Hindustan Times in an article headlined “Law firms’ body seeks ban on apps, websites offering legal services”, with a nutgraf of “The Bar Council says the practice is equivalent to surrogate advertising”.

Not quite, it turns out, but the confusion is understandable.

Bhasin heads the Society of Indian Law Firms (SILF) as its president but told us by phone yesterday that he was commenting in his personal capacity in the HT report about the existence of certain “internet law start-ups” and “web-based apps” which “are stretching the boundaries of the legal profession” in India.

According to the HT report, these apps and websites are “offering legal services, consultations with lawyers, and hosting their profiles on the internet” and “social media marketing and campaigns through emails for [clients who are lawyers]”.

The HT report cited Bhasin as calling out such practices as “surrogate advertising” which is “unauthorised and illegal” under the Bar Council of India (BCI) rules.

Meanwhile, a law ministry official reportedly told the HT that the matter was “sensitive”: “The act also empowers the government to act if the provisions are not complied with. We are studying the matter and will take a decision after consultations with the stakeholders.”

The Bar Council of India (BCI) did not respond to the HT’s request for comment.

Fake news around ads proliferate

As websites aggregating and advertising Indian legal services have been mushrooming in recent years (more or less starting with EasyLaw, which we had covered in 2012), the lack of clarity around advertising rules has similarly increased.

Just in January of this year, a lawyer aggregator website had copy-pasted an article from 2013 with the headline: “Indian Advocates can Advertise Now : BCI Rules Amended”, which went a little bit viral in the legal community and was widely shared on WhatsApp as though it was news.

The copied article has since been taken offline (see screenshot above), but the original is still online, and is based on an Indian Express article from 2008 with the headline “Advocates can now advertise”. That in turn was based on a statement reportedly made by the Bar Council of India (BCI) to the Supreme Court that it had now allowed law firms to have simple websites.

While the rehashes of the Express article don't quite reflect the legal situations around lawyer ads, they do reflect the confusion that exists around whether lawyers can advertise or not.

We have therefore summarised the main and current rules around lawyer ads below.

Prohibited ‘advertising' activities of lawyers in India

1. Soliciting work

2. advertising in any manner

3. self-promotion through circulars, advertisements, touts, personal communications, interviews other than through personal relations, furnis hing or inspiring newspaper comments or producing his photographs to be published in connection with cases in which he has been engaged or concerned.

4. Having a sign-board or name-plate of a size bigger than a “reasonable size”.

5. Having a sign-board or name-plate or stationery that indicates that its owner has been president or member of a bar council or of any association or that he has been associated with any person or organisation or with any particular cause or matter or that he specialises in any particular type of work or that he has been a judge or an advocate general.

What kind of lawyer 'ads' are allowed?

The BCI rules do allow advocates to have websites displaying their:

  • name
  • address, telephone number, email address
  • enrolment number and details of original and current enrolment (date, bar council)
  • Name of the bar association of which the advocate is a member
  • professional and academic qualifications
  • areas of practice

These restrictions are the BCI's, under rule 36 of the professional standard rules made by it, empowered as lawyers' regulatory body by the Advocates Act 1961, together with a 2008 amendment to Rule 36.

Many big law firms of course openly flout these restrictions, with singing and dancing websites (as documented by Raghul Sudheesh on Legally India in 2012), and the BCI does not appear to have been too bothered to enforce it (a whisper of dissent came from the Delhi bar council in 2010, but was not heard of again).

Why is lawyer advertising prohibited?

The theory is the influence of the Common Law-origin notion that the legal profession is an “honourable” one, which would get “commercialised” through advertising and would affect lawyers' professionalism, sense of dignity and self-worth, would mislead clients, bring down the quality of services and lead to unhealthy competition resulting in practices such as fee-undercutting by lawyers.

Current trends

A simple Google search, by name, of a vast majority of law firm lawyers and in-house lawyers at least lists their complete professional credentials online on various social networks and directories.

Google search for legal queries also directs internet users to several popular websites and web-based apps that either yield responses for free or charge them and connect them to hosted lawyers. And we have even occasionally spotted some paid-for Google ads for law firms and individual advocates.

Somewhat related, the number of major law firms in India having in-house communications departments (as we reported in Mint), which widely and aggressively circulate news about their transactions and accolades, and hope to get partners quoted or featured in the mainstream media, runs into at least double digits, while other law firms outsource this same work to independent communications agencies.

And most recently, as part of the ongoing negotiations to open up the Indian legal market to foreign law firms, the BCI in July of this year told the government that it would lift the advertising ban in order to “level the playing” field between Indian and foreign law firms (which are, of course, allowed to advertise).

Nothing has happened yet there, but perhaps it is becoming high time to put together a more robust framework that reflects the current commercial landscape.

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