State bar association derails lawyer advertising bills

March 09, 1991|By David Conn | David Conn,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- The chairman of a Senate committee considering bills to clamp down on lawyer advertising warned lawyers opposed to the bills two weeks ago that efforts to kill them were probably too late, because not only had the train left the station, "it's at the second stop."

But the legal profession managed this week to derail the locomotive.

A state bar association panel proposed this week its own set of restrictions by which the profession can police itself. So Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who sponsored some of the bills, said yesterday that he has asked the Judicial Proceedings Committee not to take any action on the advertising bills for two weeks.

That will give the bar association's Board of Governors enough time to vote on the proposed rules, according to the chairman of the bar group's Committee on Lawyer Advertising.

If the vote is positive, the Rules Committee of the Maryland Court of Appeals will hold a hearing on the proposed rules and make a recommendation to the full court. The Court of Appeals then will decide whether to implement the rules on a statewide basis.

Mr. Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the MSBA "has made a bona fide effort to deal with the problem on an in-house basis."

"Although I think they were overly slow in recognizing that there's amajor problem in the profession, their quick action to rectify the problems should be considered," Mr. Miller said.

The bills would crack down on "false, misleading, deceptive and unfair" advertising by severely limiting the content of ads on television, radio or in print. TV commercials would be allowed to show little more than a single person -- and no celebrity testimonials -- speaking about the lawyer or law firm, with a little background music. No dramatic car crashes, with the spotlight on a phone booth nearby, and no awe-inspiring courtroom scenes would be allowed.

"The profession continues to be demeaned in the eyes of the public by unscrupulous advertisers," Mr. Miller said. "The image of the profession is no longer that of Atticus Finch and 'To Kill a Mockingbird' but is that of 'junk' bond dealers on Wall Street."

The bar association committee agreed to most of the restrictions in the bills, including a ban on ads that contain testimonials and endorsements or that mention the number and size of jury awards the lawyer has won. The panel also agreed that lawyers should not solicit business from strangers, pay for referrals or advertise a fee, unless the fee stays in effect for a specified time period.

But the committee decided not to propose a flat-out ban on dramatizations in commercials and rejected the idea of a mandatory disclaimer on ads that would warn consumers not to rely solely on advertising when choosing a lawyer.

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