# Its neutrality is disputed. Tagged since March 2009.
# It is written like an advertisement and needs to be rewritten from a neutral point of view.
Anyone who’s taken a professional responsibility class or the MPRE knows that there are a lot of rules regulating attorney advertising. And, if you’ve been on the internet at all in the last couple years, you’ve probably figured out that almost every major law firm has a Wikipedia entry.
Not surprising, most of the articles were created by, or heavily edited by, employees of the law firms. This isn’t typically problematic. The Wikipedia articles generally contain information about the size of the firm, the firm’s history, the location of its offices, and its main practice areas. The pages do not contain any contact information, but do link to the firm’s official website.
I would argue that at this point there are no ethical problem. Using the New York Code of Professional Responsibility (since a ton of big firms are headquartered in NY), an attorney advertisement is defined as such:
“Advertisement” means any public or private communication made by or on behalf of a lawyer or law firm about that lawyer or law firm’s services, the primary purpose of which is for the retention of the lawyer or law firm. It does not include communications to existing clients or other lawyers.
What makes the garden variety law firm Wikipedia article okay is the “primary purpose” language. A Wikipedia article’s primary purpose is to serve as an encyclopedic article and provide neutral, factual information.
Things get dicey when firms do more with their Wikipedia articles. Some firms have added awards and honors, probably not too bad, still somewhat encyclopedic. Other firms have gone so far as to delete negative information on their articles. At some point I think adding in praise and editing out criticism creates a biased article that could constitute an advertisement. But, I want to know what you think. Is any editing of your own firm’s page advertising? Is it only advertising if you create a highly biased article? Or, is it never advertising?
You might be thinking “So what? Firms can advertise. Maybe this violates neutral tone and bias rules on Wikipedia, but it’s not an ethics issue.” You would be wrong. The NY ethics rules have this requirement for advertisements:
Every advertisement other than those appearing in a radio or television advertisement or in a directory, newspaper, magazine or other periodical (and any web sites related thereto), or made in person pursuant to DR 2-103(A)(1), shall be labeled “Attorney Advertising” on the first page, or on the home page in the case of a web site. If the communication is in the form of a self-mailing brochure or postcard, the words “Attorney Advertising” shall appear therein. In the case of electronic mail, the subject line shall contain the notation “ATTORNEY ADVERTISING.”
Since no law firm Wikipedia article I’ve seen has labeled itself as attorney advertising (and would probably be removed from Wikipedia if it did), any Wikipedia article that qualifies as an advertisement violates the Code of Professional Responsibility.
As online resources like Wikipedia grow and gain credibility, and as law firm PR departments become more web-savvy, we could see a potential shit-storm of ethics violations in the next couple years.