Even top lawyers concede colleagues can make a pitch and not be defiled

June 12, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

Looking for schlock?

Consider the Wisconsin electric chair ad:

Zoom to the inmate in the striped prison shirt being strapped into the death seat.

The chaplain asks, "Any last words?"

"Yes," the inmate replies. "I wish I'd called the Legal Clinic."

Tacky commercials like these have alienated a generation of traditional lawyers who think their profession looks cheap enough without them.

But 15 years after the Supreme Court told lawyers it was all right to make their pitch to the public, even some old school attorneys say advertising may not be so bad.

In fact, battered by the recession and facing skeptical clients, established firms are doing some genteel advertising of their own. Only they call it marketing.

"It's a very competitive world," says Cleaveland D. Miller, a corporate lawyer at the prestigious Baltimore firm of Semmes Bowen & Semmes.

"All firms do some type of advertising, some kind of marketing, whether it's giving seminars, publishing newsletters, writing articles or whatever. All firms advertise in some way. What makes people unhappy is advertising through television, billboards and Yellow Pages."

Mr. Miller directed a Maryland Bar Association panel that drafted new lawyer advertising regulations. The Maryland Court of Appeals adopted most of them, and they'll take effect Sept. 1.

Mr. Miller said he was biased against advertising when his committee began its study and asked for public opinion.

"I think I've been educated, having gone through that process," he said. "Besides, I think advertising is of a better quality than a couple of years ago, at least in Maryland."

He said advertising here is relatively tame and truthful compared to other states. As a result, the commission drafted rules that are relatively lenient.

They take aim at celebrity endorsements by prohibiting testimonials from people who were never clients. They restrict lawyers from touting their records and prohibit "no recovery, no fee" claims if some clients have to pay expenses such as fees for expert witnesses.

"What the court felt was not so much a need for new rules, but for a clarification as to what was false and misleading. It wanted to put a little flesh on the bones," said Chief Judge Alan M. Wilner of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, who chaired the judiciary's rules committee.

Judge Wilner said the public has never complained about lawyer advertising, and only one person showed up at hearings. Moreover, he said, the Attorney Grievance Commission has never received a complaint from clients about any lawyer who advertises on TV.

Stephen L. Miles, whose "Let's talk about it" ads have made him a household name in Baltimore, says attorneys have always been cautious about their commercials because they face such intense scrutiny.

"Lawyers who advertise are watched in such a jaundiced way by lawyers who don't, that if we do something wrong, we'd be disbarred before we could go to the bathroom," he said.

Mr. Miles says he spends $750,000 a year for advertising, mostly on TV. That ranks him as one of the top 10 lawyer advertisers in the country. He says he writes, produces and buys air time for his commercials.

Saiontz & Kirk ("If you have a phone, you have a lawyer") also ranks in the top 10, with ads on television stations in Baltimore and Washington. The firm won't divulge its ad budget.

Despite their spending, Mr. Miles and Saiontz & Kirk have relatively small operations compared to firms that employ hundreds of lawyers. Mr. Miles has only five attorneys on staff, and Saiontz & Kirk has 10.

Mr. Miles defends his marketing practices, including the latest wrinkle, a gold-colored, credit card-sized "preferred client card." But his most controversial tactic is his use of the prefix "former assistant state's attorney" before his name.

Ian C. Klimon, a graduate legal and ethical studies student at the University of Baltimore, says Mr. Miles is misleading people who don't know what an assistant state's attorney is.

"The problem lies in the fact that the way he says it on TV leads you to believe that it was some hot-shot job or VIP sort of position, when in fact there are hundreds of former assistant state's attorneys," Mr. Klimon said.

Mr. Miles argues that he's only touting his experience.

"It tells people that you're credible, and it gives the impression that you have a lot of trial experience," he said. "In my case the inference is true."

Mr. Miles has no time for corporate law types who don't like his advertising. He says they're hypocrites.

"They have this holier-than-thou attitude, but they spend hundreds of millions of dollars publishing fancy brochures to market their firms," he says.

He's right on that point. Most of the city's big firms have in-house marketing directors or hire outside public relations outfits to promote their firms with elegant newsletters and brochures.

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