Do Model Web Faces Misrepresent Law Firms?

In 1 on January 21, 2009 at 12:33 pm

By Bud Newman
Daily Business Review
January 5, 2009

The images of several well-groomed, professional-looking people permeate the pages on the Web site of the Holland & Knight law firm. But would-be clients should not seek to speak with any of those people about their legal needs when contemplating whether to hire the Tampa, Fla.-based firm.

All of those good-looking folks shown on virtually all of the Web site's main pages — blacks and whites, males and females, younger people and gray-haired ones — are paid models. Not one is a lawyer with the firm.

The same goes for the home page of the Web site of Ruden McCloskey, a Fort Lauderdale-based firm with offices around the state. The trio of smiling, professional-looking people — a black male, a white male and a white female — also are paid models, not lawyers, a firm spokesman acknowledged.

Before a state-appointed receiver took down the Web site of the controversial debt settlement law firm of Hess Kennedy of Coral Springs, models appeared on its home page.

While not ambivalent about the topic, The Florida Bar has not raised any enforcement issues over the use of models on law firm Web sites. Over the years, The Bar has maintained a reputation of being one of the nation's toughest regulatory bodies on lawyer advertising.

But complaints about models on Web sites have been non-existent, said Kathy Bible, The Bar's advertising counsel in Tallahassee. "I've never had a complaint on this," she said. "I don't recall this ever coming up."

Speaking generally about the use of models instead of actual lawyers, Bible said, "I don't really see this as truly misleading or deceptive."

Joy Bruner, the assistant ethics counsel in Tallahassee, said the organization's advertising committee has not previously ruled on the question.

She said lawyers and law firms "are not required to file their Web sites for review" with the Bar even though Web site content still must comply with all Bar rules about advertising.

"The issue is whether they are misleading in the context in which it's being used," Bruner said when asked generally about the use of models. She would not comment about the use of models by any specific firm.

The Bar's rules of professional conduct dealing with communications about lawyer services contain a section dealing with advertising prohibitions. Rule 4-7.2 (c) says that lawyers "shall not make or permit to be made a false misleading or deceptive communication about the lawyer or the lawyer's services" and that a communication violates the rule if it is deceptive or "contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law."

The rules, under "prohibited visual and verbal portrayals and illustrations," say that lawyers shall not include in their ads "any visual or verbal descriptions, depictions, illustrations or portrayals of persons, things or events that are deceptive, misleading, manipulative or likely to confuse the viewer."

Not all law firms that use group pictures on their Web sites hire models. In fact, most do not, based on a check of about 20 large firms that maintain offices in South Florida. Some firms use no group pictures at all or only use individual photos of their partners and associates, which can be easily changed as people leave the firm or as new attorneys arrive.

Lytal Reiter Clark Fountain & Williams of West Palm Beach uses a group photo of actual firm lawyers and support staff in a photo on its Web site, under the subhead "attorneys and staff." Several dozen people are shown standing under the huge arch in front of the main Palm Beach County courthouse, and firm spokeswoman Michelle Bacon said "those are all our people" in the photo.

Why do some firms use paid models instead of real attorneys on their Web sites?

"Most firms these days purchase stock photos that represent the style of the firm and the diversity of the firm," Ruden McCloskey director of marketing Rob Heffron said.

"It's probably less expensive to purchase stock photos than to bring in a professional photographer," he said. He added that "it becomes very expensive and complicated and time consuming" to set up photos of the firm's real attorneys assembled around a conference table, pretending to be conducting business.

Heffron said he believes the photos on the firm's Web site accurately depict "the diversity of our law firm" even though the people shown are not lawyers.

Asked why the firm would choose to use models instead of actual lawyers on its Web site, Heffron said that question would have to be answered by a more senior firm official who was unavailable for comment.

Holland & Knight chief marketing officer Bruce Alltop also was unavailable for an interview on why the firm uses so many paid models on its Web site. However, in response to a question from the Daily Business Review, he issued a statement saying the practice is about to end.

"Holland & Knight is in the process of redesigning the firm's marketing materials," Alltop said in the statement. "The look and feel of our Web site will be compatible with the new marketing materials, which will not incorporate the use of models as a design element. When our existing Web site was redesigned in 2007, firm management decided to use models rather than our own lawyers so as not to divert our lawyers' time from serving our clients."

Holland & Knight spokeswoman Susan Bass added that the firm's new Web site — sans models — is expected to debut in the first quarter of this year.

The Miami firm of Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson uses a group picture of five of its actual attorneys on its Web site instead of models.

"We think that using real people makes the Web site a little bit warmer, more approachable and says something about who we are," the firm's marketing director, Krista Kellogg, said.

She said using actual lawyers is more expensive than using models because "it's always difficult to schedule attorneys for activities that are not billable" and it's time consuming to set up the photo shoot.

"In the end, we think it's worth it," she said.

Posted via email from HKLaw Investigation


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