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Canadian Study Finds Criminal Defense Lawyers May Be Violating Ethical Advertising Standards

Laptop HandshakePeople often say that once something is on the internet, it will likely be there forever. This claim isn’t far from the truth: numerous companies and individuals have found themselves undone by statements that were made years previously. Because of this, many businesses choose to invest in internet marketing consultation services to ensure that their message is delivered accurately and appropriately, whether they are using social media or their own websites. Unfortunately, some attorneys seem to be taking risks with their web presence: a Canadian study that recently examined the websites of several criminal defense lawyers found that the marketing strategies used by these professionals often trivialized sexual violence and even violated ethical rules upheld by the legal community.

The study was inspired by the highly publicized sexual abuse allegations against former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi, famed comedian Bill Cosby, and several Canadian members of Parliament. Over the course of her research, assistant professor Elaine Craig of Dalhousie University in Halifax analyzed the results of Google searches for the keyword “sexual assault lawyer” in 10 cities. After looking at websites from Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, Craig began arguing that law societies need to update advertising rules to reflect how many lawyers use the internet to market themselves.

The academic paper Craig published, which quickly circulated throughout the Canadian legal community via Twitter, drew significant attention due to her inclusion of quotes from actual websites. In one prominent example, a Toronto lawyer described his client’s alleged attempt to assault a woman while posing as a plumber as a “wardrobe malfunction” in which “his penis made a brief escape.” In contrast, the police report from the incident, which Craig also found on the website, states that the client pretended to be looking for the source of a water leak before rubbing against the victim and exposing himself. The lawyer has since claimed that the excerpts were taken out of context and pointed out that a criminal defense website will hardly appeal to all parties.

Despite this claim, however, law firms who use unflattering language and examples like the statements quoted by Craig may have reason to fear the future. A number of companies in a variety of fields have found themselves in hot water after their employees or PR teams made questionable or incendiary statements online. Moreover, given the recent prevalence of the Cosby sexual assault allegations, the charges against Jian Ghomeshi, and the University of Virginia rape case, an insensitive remark about sex abuse could easily lead to years of regret.

But insensitivity isn’t the only thing Craig’s subjects have to worry about: in her report, she quoted a number of law firms who repeated outdated notions about sexual assault, including claims that charges are motivated by jealousy or anger, and even promised “aggressive” or “confrontational” cross-examinations of alleged victims at trial. A few also appeared to boast that they had won acquittals for guilty clients. According to the legal profession’s ethical rules, lawyers are not allowed to imply aggression. Additionally, advertisements are required to be in the “best interest of the public” and “consistent with a high standard of professionalism,” meaning some of these websites could be violating marketing standards.

Currently, the Law Society of Upper Canada has stated that their organization has not received any complaints or launched any investigations. However, a spokesman from the Criminal Lawyer’s Association pointed out that the study may have already had an effect: some lawyers appear to have made efforts to remove offensive content from their websites.



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