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Lawyer Advertising– lowering the bar

Last weekend I was privileged to be inducted as a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers in their spring meeting in Naples,Fl. Driving along I-75 on Florida’s gulf coast I was overwhelmed by the epidemic of lawyer billboards. The ads ran the gamut from dignified to the absurd– there was one guy in biker leathers sitting 0n his Harley proclaiming that he has your back! I wasn’t sure if that meant he would vindicate your rights in the courtroom or assemble a biker gang to seek some street justice for whatever wrong had been visited on the poor, prospective client.

In Florida, lawyer ads not only dominate the landscape, but assail TV viewers and radio listeners as well. Makes me wonder when we will get lawyer Super Bowl commercials!

I mention the American College not to tout myself but because I was struck by the contrast between the materials I was given at the conference and the gauntlet of lawyers ads I encountered traveling there. One of the first publications I received was the College’s Statement on Advertising.

The American College represents the pinnacle achievement for a trial lawyer. As an organization the College understands that lawyers advertise and that marketing is critical in the highly competitive world of litigation. Unlike the Wild West approach of screaming billboards and deceptive print ads, the College prescribes what the profession should embrace as dignified advertisements: “At the core of these standards is the principle that in communicating with potential or existing clients as well as with the general public, lawyers have a duty and responsibility to be truthful, open and candid while at the same time upholding the dignity and honor of the legal profession.”

In our state lawyers who have advertisements, including websites, are required to file quarterly reports listing their ads and URLs with the Statewide Grievance Committee. Photos of billboards or pdf’s of print ads must be scanned in and submitted electronically.

Lawyer advertising traditionally was discouraged and even disciplined until the seminal case in 1977, Bates v. State Bar of Arizona. The United States Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected lawyer advertising as commercial speech. The Court was persuaded that abandoning the ages-old, etiquette-based ban would lead to legal services being more accessible to the general public and promote the overall administration of the law. Thirty six years later I am hard pressed to see how banner ads on the sides of buses and atop taxi cabs serve any purpose other than the advancement of the advertisers.

The plaintiffs in the Bates case were two recent law school graduates who opened a practice devoted to providing low cost legal services to an otherwise under-served segment of the population, ostensibly unable to afford resort to lawyers to redress grievances. Certainly, the concept was noble. Today’s lawyer ads predominantly target the injured; cases universally taken on a contingent fee basis. Potential personal injury plaintiffs can hardly be considered under-served. If anything they are over-saturated with claims that Attorney So-and-So has your back, will fight for your rights, is on your side, and on and on.

More lawyers should be guided by the principles the College advances: “Lawyers and law firms should recognize that their advertising necessarily reflects on the legal profession and influences the public’s attitudes towards the profession and the administration of

The interests of the public and justice, not the bottom line of a law firm, should be the guiding force in our marketing.

Rich Meehan