In the year and a half since Maryland lawyers were permitted to use the word “specialize” when advertising their area of practice, it appears attorneys have transitioned smoothly into the rule change and have not attracted complaints for false or deceptive advertising.
The Court of Appeals approved the change in 2017 to the Maryland Lawyers’ Rule of Professional Conduct 19-307.4, or 7.4, by removing 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.
“We have not received a single complaint related to that rule since the change,” said Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless on Monday, adding that if any complaints did come through her office, they were not docketed for investigation.
The word was prohibited for a long time, so attorneys and those who enforce the Maryland Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct were cautious about the change when it was enacted last year.
“The main complication simply will be it introduces an element of subjectivity as to whether a person is a specialist in a certain practice,” said then-acting Bar Counsel Raymond A. Hein when the rule change first went into effect.
The amended rule still has a truth-in-advertising provision that bars attorneys from making false or misleading statements about their services. Attorneys are required to have knowledge specific to the practice area.
Even before the rule was amended, the Attorney Grievance Commission rarely filed public charges against attorneys who called themselves specialists. At most, the commission would open a file on an attorney, who would then change the advertising language.
One exception was a 2014 case, Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Runan Zhang, in which the Court of Appeals disbarred an attorney in part because she described herself as a specialist in immigration and corporation law.
Even in that case, in a concurring and dissenting opinion, Judge Robert N. McDonald questioned the logic behind then-Rule 7.4.
“A random walk through the websites of law firms listed in the yellow pages of the Maryland Lawyers’ Manual yields many instances in which lawyers strongly imply, or state in other words, that they specialize in certain fields,” McDonald wrote. “Limitation of one’s practice to certain areas and disclosure of that limitation to the public is a good thing. A lawyer who tries to be a jack of all trades will be competent at none and may commit more serious violations of the MLRP.”