Bar group seeks limits on celebrity legal ads

November 13, 1991|By Blair S. Walker ZHC 9T&B

The Maryland State Bar Association will try to limit, instead of ban, television legal ads that feature celebrity testimonials, following a recommendation from an internal panel.

What makes such ads objectionable is that "a testimonial by a well-known celebrity would be [heeded] because of the public recognition of this figure, rather than the true quality of legal services provided to a consumer," bar association Executive Director Paul V. Carlin said yesterday.

A 20-member MSBA legal advertising committee chaired by Cleaveland D. Miller, a Baltimore attorney, spent five months looking into the issue of curtailing certain kinds of legal ads. It decided that efforts to prohibit testimonials would likely run afoul of the First Amendment.

"We did studies, some surveys and more research into the Constitution, and we felt that, at least in Maryland, we could not build a case at this point" against the ads, said Mr. Miller, who works for Semmes, Bowen & Semmes.

His panel did conclude that a prohibition on ads discussing damage award amounts or a lawyer's track record for obtaining such awards might be permissible.

The MSBA meets Friday with the Rules Committee of the state Court of Appeals to discuss limiting lawyer advertising, and testimonial ads will be on the agenda.

The Court of Appeals handles most regulatory matters concerning attorneys in Maryland, Mr. Miller said.

A few weeks ago, the bar sponsored meetings to get public reaction on the subject at four sites in the state, including Baltimore and Hagerstown. The total turnout was one person, who attended a meeting in Salisbury, Janet S. Eveleth, an MSBA spokeswoman, said.

Donald Saiontz is a Baltimore attorney whose firm, Saiontz and Kirk, advertises extensively on television and doesn't use testimonials. Mr. Saiontz sat on the MSBA's legal advertising committee.

"It's amazing to me that they [the MSBA] had a committee that was 90 percent anti-advertising in the beginning, spent hundreds of hours studying the legality of it, commissioned a survey, commissioned hearings all around the state and found almost non-existent public interest in the matter," Mr. Saiontz said.

Most of the hue and cry over legal advertisements has come from state legislators, lawyers and jurists. Several pieces of legislation aimed at restricting lawyer advertisements and making sure they're not false or deceptive were defeated in the General Assembly this year.

The bar association will also submit other advertising proposals to the Court of Appeals panel Friday.

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