Maryland lawyers will soon be able to advertise as specialists in particular areas of law, the state’s top court stated Tuesday in formally ending a prohibition that had compelled many attorneys to rely on word-of-mouth to build their specialized practices.
The Court of Appeals took the action in amending Maryland Attorneys’ Rule of Professional Conduct 19-307.4, or 7.4, by striking the mandate that lawyers “shall not hold (themselves) out publicly as a specialist.” The excision was recommended by the Maryland Judiciary’s Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure.
Prior to the amendment, which goes into effect April 1, attorneys were permitted to say they practice in particular fields of law but were barred from saying they specialize. The amended rule retains a truth-in-advertising provision that bars attorneys from making false or misleading statements about their services.
“I think it is, to some extent, much ado about nothing,” longtime family-law attorney Ferrier R. Stillman said of lifting the ban on the words “specialist” and “specialize.”
“Lawyers have found a way around it” by permissibly saying they “concentrate in” or “focus on” an area of the law,” she added.
“To the extent that it matters at all, I am concerned that it will encourage some lawyers to say they ‘specialize’ when they really don’t have a lot of experience in a particular area of law,” said Stillman, a partner at Tydings & Rosenberg LLP in Baltimore. “The rule doesn’t define specialize so you can define it anyway you choose. That’s a little bit dangerous.”
Stillman said she has no plans to say that she “specializes” in family law, though she has been practicing it for nearly 30 years.
“A person’s years of experience are more important than saying, ‘I specialize,” she added.
But Baltimore solo practitioner Abraham L. Hurdle said he and other small-firm attorneys welcome their new-found advertising freedom.
“It’s going to be beneficial,” Hurdle said. “I do a lot of liquor (licensing) work and small-business work. It’s nice to say I have more than a focus and that I specialize in that area.”
A previous, more complex proposal to lift the advertising prohibition was abandoned earlier this year when the General Assembly did not provide sufficient funding for a judicial commission that was to recommend areas of legal specialty that could be recognized and to accredit certifying agencies. The rules committee subsequently recommended in October that the prohibition simply be deleted, noting the ban might violate the constitutional free-speech rights of attorneys.
Maryland State Bar Association President Harry C. Storm said the Court of Appeals was “right in acting now to remove the prohibition so there is not a constitutional concern about it.”
But Storm, a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge, said he suspects the rules committee will be reviewing attorney advertisements to see how the word “specialist” and all its derivative forms are used not only in traditional legal directories and newspapers but on the Internet and social media.
“I think this (lifting of the prohibition) is just a first step in what will be a more comprehensive review,” Storm said. “Stay tuned.”