State Senate's president wants to take pizazz out of lawyers' ads

February 21, 1991|By David Conn | David Conn,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Shakespeare suggested killing all the lawyers, but Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. merely wants to put a muzzle on them.

A bill the Prince George's County Democrat sponsored would sharply limit the types of advertisements lawyers in Maryland can run. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which heard the bill and related legislation yesterday, indicated the measures are on the fast track to passage in the Senate.

Committee Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, said to opponents of the legislation, "My advice to you . . . is maybe to start drafting some amendments, because I've got a feel

ing that we've got a vehicle here that's going to move."

S.B. 578 would prevent lawyers from making any "false, misleading, deceptive or unfair communication about the lawyer or the lawyer's services." It lays out a series of prohibitions on elements of advertisements, but it is easier to describe what the bill allows:

Only broadcast ads with a single, non-celebrity voice and no background sound other than instrumental music would be allowed. Cars crashing into each other and tense courtroom dramas would be barred.

Advertisements would be allowed to include the lawyer's name and phone number, the jurisdictions in which the attorney is admitted to practice, professional licenses, foreign language ability, acceptance of

credit cards and very little else.

Mr. Miller expressed disgust at some of the more notorious television ads directed toward auto-accident victims. "Projecting the idea that they should call a lawyer before they call a doctor or a spouse is demeaning to a profession I love," said Mr. Miller, a partner in a small general-practice law firm in Clinton.

But representatives of lawyers who advertise and of the state bar association protested that the legislation is the wrong way to address what is merely perceived to be a problem.

Michael Gisriel, who represents some of the most active lawyer-advertisers in the Baltimore area, said the legislation runs up against constitutional guarantees.

"If you're going to regulate speech,

even if it's commercial speech, then you've got to have hard empirical data to show why you have to regulate it. And I submit that hasn't been demonstrated," he said. "Nothing is severely broken."

He said there have been no consumer complaints about lawyer advertising filed with the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission.

Seymour Stern, president of the state bar association, noted that a committee of his group is nearly through studying rules promulgated recently by Florida's court system. Mr. Miller's bill is based on those rules.

"The consensus around the country is that there is a major problem that needs to be addressed," Mr. Stern told the committee. But the best and traditional way to do it, he

said, is through the Maryland Court of Appeals, which promulgates rules of conduct for lawyers.

Mr. Miller's bill also would require lawyers' ads to include a disclaimer stating, "The decision to seek legal services and choose a lawyer is extremely important and should not be based solely upon advertisements or self-proclaimed expertise."

A similar bill sponsored by Sen. George W. Della Jr., D-Baltimore, would require the disclaimer alone. That bill, which became known as the Stephen L. Miles bill, after a well-known Baltimore attorney who advertises heavily, passed the Senate last year but failed in the House.

Mr. Gisriel said this year's versions stand a much better chance because they are backed by the powerful Senate president.

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