There he is, your lawyer

October 12, 1995|By MARK HYMAN | MARK HYMAN,SUN STAFF

In Florida, lawyers pitching their services on television must flash a sobering disclaimer warning viewers: "The selection of a lawyer is an important one and should not be based on advertising alone."

Nevada's code of ethical conduct bars actors in commercials from portraying lawyers, but not clients.

Iowa has the simplest rule of all -- it doesn't permit lawyers to advertise on TV.

TTC Lawyer advertising has evolved in unpredictable ways since it first appeared on TV screens in 1977, when a landmark Supreme Court decision struck down state bans on it.

Some states heavily regulate what lawyers can communicate. Others impose virtually no restrictions.

Maryland's lawyer advertising rules are markedly lax. Attorneys here can trumpet their preferred customer cards, invite calls to their legal hot lines, even re-enact accident scenes. Restrictions are so few, in fact, that they cover less than two pages in the lawyer's code of professional conduct.

"Maryland is the most liberal in the country," says William I. Weston, a professor of ethics at the University of Baltimore Law School.

"We allow almost any kind of advertising, as long as it's not false, misleading or deceptive."

That said, it's hardly surprising that some Maryland lawyers spend freely on advertising. Two with offices in the Baltimore area frequently appear on surveys of the nation's top-spending lawyer advertisers.

In 1994, Saiontz & Kirk was one of 11 firms nationally to spend $1 million or more on television commercials, according to a survey compiled by the Television Bureau of Advertising. The law firm spent $1.07 million.

Baltimore lawyer Stephen L. Miles, another prolific advertiser, wasn't ranked by the television bureau last year. Mr. Miles' firm is listed in the 1993 survey as spending $1.04 million.

Though relatively liberal, Maryland's rules do restrict some types of advertisements. The state Court of Appeals ordered several changes to the state's rules of professional conduct three years ago, including a ban on using celebrity endorsers unless the celebrity truly was a client of the law firm. That doomed the legal career of football commentator John Madden, who had become an omnipresent pitchman for a number of firms.

Mr. Weston can't fathom that rule.

"The view is, if Cal Ripken were saying, 'Come to Willie Weston, attorney,' you'd perceive me as a good lawyer because Cal is uniformly respected," he said. "And that might give a misimpression.

"My honest opinion is that's baloney. As long as the substance of what he says is truthful, what's the difference?"

Other Maryland rules prohibit lawyers from describing themselves as "specialists." (They can substitute "concentrates.") If a law firm touts its success record in court, it must include a disclaimer explaining that's no guarantee you'll win your case.

Although Maryland advertising rules are lax, lawyers still run afoul of them. Last year, more than one-third of the complaints filed with the Attorney Grievance Commission concerned advertising.

The commission handled 245 such complaints, nearly 200 concerning lawyers working on contingency fees. The lawyers failed to observe a rule requiring them to state in their advertisements whether they billed expenses of their cases to clients. For the minor infraction, the lawyers received warning letters from the commission.

Mr. Miles said he was responsible for 244 of the complaints. When a lawyer turned him in for his omission, he said, he thumbed through the telephone book and reported other violations.

"The numbers make it look like a total breakdown in lawyer advertising," Mr. Miles said. "It's a little misleading."

In many states, debate about advertising splits the legal community. But in Maryland, disagreements are few.

Cleaveland D. Miller, managing partner at Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, said that what little resistance there is to advertising typically comes from older attorneys.

"The younger lawyers seem to be less upset about it than the ones practicing 20 to 25 years," said Mr. Miller, 56, who was chairman of an ad hoc committee formed by the Maryland State Bar Association to study advertising.

Opinion about the advertising also is split by practice area.

Staid, established firms that rely on corporate clients or defense work generally are neutral or opposed. They don't need the exposure.

At the other extreme are firms built on personal injury and workers compensation cases. Such firms can benefit tremendously when their message is out to a mass audience.

Some lawyers complain when that message is undignified. But supporters of the Maryland rules say even the advertising is a plus.

"It's very important for people to have access to legal information at their fingertips," said Donald S. Saiontz, whose firm has offices in Baltimore and Washington.

"If you're bleeding, you go to a medical emergency room. If you're bleeding mentally from a legal problem, where do you go?" Mr. Saiontz, 52, said. "Without advertising, many people wouldn't know."

Mr. Weston, the law professor, said he's more convinced than ever that lawyers should be permitted to advertise. He said his convictions deepened after he assisted an American Bar Association committee that explored the subject.

"All the myths about advertising simply aren't true," Mr. Weston said.

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