122 N.J.L.J. 746
September 22, 1988
Advertising by Areas of Practice
An inquirer has written to the Committee questioning the
propriety of attorneys advertising by areas of practice in
telephone directories. The specific directory at issue is the New
Jersey Bell Telephone Yellow Pages, in which certain attorneys have
chosen to be grouped by the professional services they offer.
These groupings are separated from the alphabetical listing of
attorneys and are organized under various fields of practice, which
are themselves alphabetically arranged. Attorneys or law firms are
listed under one or more of these fields, presumably at their
request and for an additional charge.
On every page on which these groupings appear, the following statement is published:
For your convenience and easy reference, the following lawyers have arranged to identify themselves with various fields of professional services they offer. These listings do not imply they have been certified as specialists, or that they are necessarily more competent than other attorneys.
The inquirer does not consider this statement or disclaimer sufficient protection for the public. He believes that the public is misled into "thinking that the attorneys who list themselves by specialty, are in fact, board certified and limit their practice to the specialties listed in the directory." He notes, further, that the Supreme Court has created just two areas of attorney certification, civil trial attorney and criminal trial attorney, so that only attorneys certified in these areas can properly hold themselves out as specialists. He, therefore, asks the Committee to limit advertising by areas of practice to attorneys with trial certifications or alternatively, to attorneys whose advertised areas constitute their primary, if not sole, field of practice.
We begin by observing that attorney advertising through telephone directories is expressly permitted by RPC 7.2(a). Furthermore, RPC 7.4 allows lawyers to advertise that they practice in particular areas.
A lawyer may communicate the fact that the lawyer does or does not practice in particular fields of law. However, when the Supreme Court has designated areas of specialty certification, only those attorneys so certified may advertise that they are specialists in, or limit their practices to those areas. Uncertified attorneys may nevertheless list these areas as among the areas in which they practice.
An important feature of this rule is that it identifies attorney certification with attorney specialization. As the inquirer has correctly noted, specialists are those attorneys who are certified. But the rule also permits other, non-certified attorneys to state that they practice in the same areas for which there are certifications. That is, it permits both specialists and non-specialists to hold themselves out as practicing in the same fields, though not with the same degree of expertise. This indicates that the rule is not intended to limit advertising of areas of practice only to certified attorneys.
The rule, moreover, specifically contemplates non-specialists listing more than one field of practice. Non-certified attorneys may still list areas for which there are specialty certifications "as among the areas in which they practice." (Emphasis added). We, therefore, conclude that the plain language of RPC 7.4 allows the form of advertising that the inquirer seeks to have restricted.
There is still another reason for refusing to impose the more restrictive guidelines the inquirer suggests. The information conveyed by a listing of fields of practice readily identifies for consumers attorneys who are seeking, and willing to handle, particular types of matters. This is consistent with the requirement that attorney advertising be "predominantly informational." RPC 7.2(a).
When the Court first established that regulatory standard, it expressed concern over the practical difficulties that consumers might face in assessing the quality of advertised services. In re Petition of Felmeister and Isaacs, 104 N.J. 515, 526-529 (1986). This led the Court to suggest that:
consumers might be better served...if a specific disclaimer about professional quality were required, including, perhaps, a disclaimer of certified expertise when the ad includes fields of practice. This disclaimer would not only prevent the consumer from being misled by the ad, but it might cause him to make independent inquiry about the attorneys.
Id., at 527, fn. 10.
This is the route that New Jersey Bell Telephone has taken in
its Yellow Pages. There is a clear disclaimer stating that it is
the attorneys who have chosen for themselves the fields with which
they wish to be identified. The disclaimer further states that
such identification does not imply specialization in the field, nor
greater competence than other attorneys. This is precisely the
kind of disclaimer that the Court refers to in Felmeister, and
accordingly, we hold that it sufficiently alerts consumers to the
inherent limitations of attorneys advertising by fields of
The Committee wishes to add that in reviewing this inquiry it communicated with the Trial Attorney Certification Board and the Advertising Committee of the New Jersey State Bar Association. Neither body found this form of advertising objectionable.