Lawyers and the airwaves

Dan Rodricks B

April 15, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

Whenever the issue of lawyer advertising is presented as controversy -- that is, whenever I hear lawyers arguing that other lawyers shouldn't cheapen the profession with their trashy TV commercials -- I imagine a clan of sneering blue bloods who refuse to attend a fancy cotillion for fear their bourgeois cousins will show up, pocket the pastry, steal the silverware and do the Hully Gully.

It's a kind of class struggle within the legal profession. There are many attorneys who wish to maintain a high standard, or at least the aura of one, by refraining from tasteless commercial appeals. They're embarrassed by the TV advertising. They think it accounts for the public's low regard for the practice of law, especially civil litigation.

Other attorneys are more cynical and far less pretentious. They are mercenaries who know that the legal community is overpopulated with attorneys and that the edge goes to those who hustle and advertise.

This conflict boiled up again a few years ago when bills were filed in the Maryland General Assembly to regulate lawyer advertising on TV. The lawyers who use the tube threatened to challenge the move on constitutional grounds -- and they probably would have won -- so efforts were made to strike a deal.

What resulted was a new set of rules, approved last week by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

For one thing, the new rules prohibit ads that claim clients won't have to pay anything unless their lawyer wins -- the old "No recovery/No Fee" deal. It's an enticement that probably went too far and might not have been altogether accurate. Apparently, the lawyers who advertise can live with this restriction.

They also won't be allowed to boast their won-loss records and RDAs (Reasonable Doubt Averages) without a disclaimer telling viewers that past performance is not a guarantee of future success.

But the one new rule that has me stuck is the prohibition on celebrity testimonials.

This could be the end of some of the best lawyer advertising on TV. Being a fan of the genre -- lawyer ads are bad, they're campy, they're entertaining -- I worry about it.

Under the new rules, a celebrity -- a famous athlete or former politician -- can no longer testify to the greatness of the attorney who got him a suspended sentence. We might have seen the last of John Madden in lawyer advertising.

And what of Bubba Smith? He'll have to become a lawyer himself and join the law firm that once represented him in order to endorse it -- Cohen, Snyder, McClellan, Eisenberg, Katzenberg & Bubba.

And what of Stephen L. Miles?

He's an attorney with several years' experience -- a former assistant state's attorney, as a matter of fact. And talk about celebrities. Miles is better known than Bubba by now. Two generations of kids have grown up with his commercials on Baltimore television -- and many of them probably need a lawyer today.

By every measure, Miles is a celebrity.

Say the name, say the slogan: "Let's Talk About It." Children ask him for autographs. There's a Stephen L. Miles Fan Club at a Baltimore elementary school. He has been imitated at masquerade parties. His face appears on T-shirts. A couple of Baltimore musicians wrote a song about him two years ago. In the Baltimore market, where it counts, Miles has a face at least as well known as Gary Hurley's, and that's going some.

Miles is famous for being famous -- not necessarily because of anything he's done in a courtroom. (Although I recall with great fondness how, during closing arguments in a murder trial several years ago, Miles blew air into a balloon to illustrate the pressures that contributed to the violent explosion of his client. He had the jury spellbound.) Miles is famous because he has spent millions of dollars on advertising.

And so what?

The only problem I see with advertising on this scale is the practice it creates. Do the attorneys who advertise keep up with cases? Do their clients get adequate attention? That's not something I hear in this debate.

A few years ago, I stopped at the law office of an attorney who, like Miles, has spent millions on TV and radio. He looked harried. He had a phone in each ear. He sat behind a stack of files a foot-and-a-half high covering a desk that was probably seven feet long. And though I had come to him to talk about a case that was highly publicized at the time, he had no idea what, or whom, I was talking about.

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