Poorly considered advertising claims can send your reputation up in a puff of (Carbolic) smoke
Michael Wolkind QC, a prominent London Silk, recently found this out the hard way after publishing a website (topcriminalqc.com.uk) claiming he “could get Stevie Wonder a driver’s license” (a testimonial, apparently unsolicited, left by a client) and was “the UK’s top criminal barrister”.
Although advertising by the profession is no longer tightly regulated, that does not mean that marketing claims cannot be a disciplinary matter. The Court of Appeal took exception to the content of his website and referred the publication to the Regulator. Charges ensued, alleging that the claims reduced public confidence in the legal profession.
The primary concern was that Mr Wolkind’s claim of pre-eminence could not be substantiated. Whilst not stated expressly, an underlying factor was no doubt the long standing concern that this kind of puffery creates the impression that an advocate is a hired gun who will pursue any claim no matter how unmeritorious and can manipulate the justice system in favour of any who can afford to pay.
Demonstrating unusual reticence, Mr. Wolkind decided not to argue that he was indeed the UK’s top criminal Barrister and pleaded guilty to the charge instead. The £1000 fine was no doubt small change, but the glee with which the British tabloids jumped on the story was probably the true punishment.
In mitigation, Mr. Wolkind claimed that the website was curated by third parties, and that the claims were “obvious hyperbole” rather than any attempt to mislead.
Although The Bar Council has a different regulatory system, the duty not to “bring the profession into disrepute” is also a fundamental duty in the Australian Solicitors Conduct Rules 2012 (‘ASCR’).  Advertising is also the subject of a specific conduct rule, which prohibits false, misleading or deceptive or material likely to mislead or deceive, offensive material, or material prohibited by law.
The case is also a useful reminder that testimonials and comments left on a web page or social media may be treated as our own publication.
 See Rule 5, Australian Solicitors Conduct Rules 2012 (‘ASCR’).