TV ads for lawyers? Let's talk about it

October 12, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Just to set the record straight, Stephen L. Miles is entitled to a certain amount of smugness, but not much. He is the attorney who is famous mainly for making himself famous. In the world of lawyers who advertise, he is the poster boy for shameless self-promotion. But now, he's about to get some unanticipated company, and he's crowing about it.

He's entitled to a few minutes of chuckling, but then he should let it go, because he seems to be missing the point.

Venable, Baetjer & Howard, the second largest law firm in the area, with a reputation for starched dignity in high places, has hired an advertising firm. It's the Reeves Agency of Baltimore, enlisted to develop an image campaign for Venable. Never in its 97-year history has the law firm even pondered the possibilities of such a move. Lawyers who advertise? Riffraff, Venable has sniffed.

"Hah," Miles is saying.

Hah, indeed.

For years, Miles has caught flak for his TV commercials. Among those sneering most ostentatiously have been the old blue-blooded firms such as Venable, which never imagined themselves getting into the same promotional racket.

"I get a chuckle out of it," Miles told The Sun's Greg Schneider last week. "For years and years, all you hear is the holier-than-thou BS from the big law firms. Now [Venable] is getting an ad agency, so it's kind of funny."

Miles has also been criticized in places such as this newspaper column. He's been criticized not only for his saturation spending, but for the very nature of his TV spots, which have tended to stress personality and trivialize the practice of law.

"There he is," awed courthouse observers murmured in one commercial, as though they've spotted a movie star. "There he is. It's him." And there he is, indeed: Miles, telling a judge, "Let's talk about it," in his familiar catch phrase.

And, not to be overlooked, he's been ripped for his actual legal work. A man named Nathaniel Hurt sits in prison today because Miles absolved himself of all responsibility when it counted most.

For the moment, though, consider the matter of advertising. Venable, Baetjer & Howard is talking about a series of discreet print ads for national legal and financial publications, aimed at people such as corporate chief executive officers and finance directors. As such things go, it's a pretty mild gesture, but it says something about the changing landscape of the legal business.

We are saturated with attorneys. The law schools are turning them out by the thousands, and they're bumping into each other in the courthouse corridors. The number of lawyers has more than doubled in the last quarter-century. There's too much competition for too few cases. Thus, lawyers have created markets where none previously existed.

More and more, their business is to cultivate and prolong conflict. There are attorneys encouraging neighbors and friends to sue each other on the flimsiest of cause. Well, there's one cause, actually: fattening the pockets of the lawyers. It's the American way.

Among the big criticisms of legal advertising is that it contributes to this culture. It encourages people to look for opportunities to cash in. For years, Miles has been one of the biggest legal advertisers in America -- $1 million a year in some years, according to the various legal publications.

Last week, Miles pointed out that lawyers who criticized his advertising campaigns were marketing themselves -- though, in more discreet ways. They weren't advertising on television, but they were giving speeches and seminars, for example, to gain exposure with prospective clients.

Miles didn't quite mention his own public speaking. For several years, he had a show on a local radio station. The show became his public forum -- not only to discus legal issues, but to set Miles up as a voice so respected and well-known that a radio station would want him as an authority on community issues.

In fact, Miles paid the station -- $408 for every hour he was on the air, or more than $42,000 a year -- for the air time. In other words, it was two straight hours a week of paid Stephen L. Miles commercials.

Is there anything wrong with this? At the very least, it should be billed for what it really is. Also, the talk should be responsible. Miles got himself in big trouble when he defended Nathaniel Hurt, the 62-year-old man tormented by neighborhood kids who finally took out a gun and unintentionally killed one of them in October 1994.

Among the witnesses in the case was a retired police firearms expert. On his radio program, Miles called the officer "a lying Nazi, a Gestapo member and an overzealous gun nut." The officer sued. Miles then denied making the remarks, even though they'd been heard by anyone listening to his broadcast. Later, he agreed to a $75,000 out-of-court settlement.

Some may also remember Miles failing to protect Nathaniel Hurt when he had the chance for a plea bargain in his slaying case. "This one's in your hands, I ain't telling you what to do," Miles told Hurt -- who then turned down the plea possibility and was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

This has never been mentioned in any TV commercials.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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