By Ifedayo Oke-Lawal
For a country that has made spectacular advances in software development and the provision of world class services as its global emblem, the restrictions on Indian law firms from having fully fledged websites is a touch puzzling.
Accordingly, beyond using the internet to indicate their addresses and for sending and receiving emails, Indian law firms are simply not at liberty to showcase their history, transactional record, qualifications of their lawyers or any of the common hallmarks that have come to define law firm websites in many notable jurisdictions. Technology has a way of dethroning settled assumptions and this appears to have happened with the underlying narrative against legal "advertising".
Historically, the legal profession in Britain was an elite and upper middle class preserve and as gentlemen, the view was taken that advertising stained the prestige of such a "noble profession".
In the ensuing rules therefore made to regulate conduct, advertising was prohibited and this has largely remained an article of (professional) faith in virtually all the jurisdictions in which English Common Law berthed.
The previous Rules of Professional Conduct in Nigeria contains no less a prohibition against advertising. Yet it must be conceded that there was not much of a debate in Nigeria when the development of the internet presented the opportunity of Nigerian law firms having a web presence. Everybody simply joined the train. Indeed, it was only in 2007 that the new and extant rules of Professional Conduct in Nigeria gave legitimacy to a controlled‟ form of mirroring similar provisions in England. In India, a country with whom Nigeria shares remarkable similarities, the combination of the Advocates Act, 1961 and the Rules of the Bar Council of India reproduces the historical prohibition on advertising. Quite naturally, the Rules in India predate the internet and could not have foreseen the changes it would unfurl.
So, is having a website advertising?
The answer is likely to be mixed and the issues it throws up are no closer to being resolved by a plebiscite. Perhaps a suggestion might be to invert the pyramid and concede to the impossibility of indefinitely sealing the profession. The argument for maintaining the traditional prohibition against legal advertising range from preserving the dignity of the profession to not misleading, deceiving and or confusing the public. These remain enduring and legitimate concerns in all jurisdictions, no doubt; yet it is hard to see how creatively firm regulations cannot address these. This would seem to be the preferred route taken by the Law Society in England.
Such is the extent to which fundamental changes are being made to the noble profession" that Slater & Gordon, an Australian law firm, went public as a business in 2007. English firms may soon be similarly opportune. In other respects, markets changes, technology and client sophistication are, according to Richard Susskind, leading to a "commoditization" of legal services and a need for lawyers who will be adept in identifying and mitigating legal risks. India law firms stand at the gateway of a far too important segment of the global market and the rather nuanced argument of whether owing a proper website offends the Rules is unlikely to be able to sidestep what must surely be the stream of an inevitable flood.
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