by Eugene K. Pettis
As I travel across the state, I am amazed at the volume of legal advertisement on television, billboards, bus benches, buses, and taxis.
Let’s clear the air: I am not adverse to all legal advertisement. Done tastefully, I believe it serves an educational purpose for the public and is an effective business development tool.
But, as with every high-flying trend, we must wonder: When will it all collapse? What is driving this avalanche of marketing? What is the long-term consequence on the image and integrity of the legal profession?
In a crowded legal field, lawyers feel pressure to brand their services. In part, this is the consequence of a growing Florida Bar membership of more than 98,000 lawyers, while many litigation trends point downward. Today, many feel that, in order to compete, use of mass media is mandatory. In many firms, marketing budgets can reach well into six figures, with top marketers spending in excess of $1 million simply to tell the world “how good they are,” in hopes of landing clients.
There are similar developments in other industries. The retail industry used to hold a couple of big sales a year that would have real value. Today, they advertise a “sale of the year” every other month.
The airline industry has mastered the art of deception. We have all been intrigued by claims of low prices for round-trip tickets to dream destinations only to learn that those seats are sold out or that the price didn’t include your luggage or a pass to use in-air restroom privileges. When you add in those “luxuries,” you’re back at full price.
These antics of the retail and airline industries have eroded my confidence in their services and the truthfulness of their message.
This leads me to ask: How far are we willing to push the envelope in legal advertising/marketing efforts before we push our profession over the cliff of credibility?
The Bar’s Board of Governors includes two public members, and their insights and perspectives are a valued reality check. At a recent meeting, BOG member Bud Gardner, a former Florida legislator and engineer, raised concern over the proliferation of lawyer billboard advertising. He compared this marketing frenzy to that of gambling casinos: “I won $10,000!”
Is that the image we really want for our profession; for people to see our justice system as a crapshoot, rolling the dice for quick riches?
Unfortunately, I don’t believe that Gardner is the only member of the public or the corporate community with the impression that such advertising cheapens our profession.
Where does this leave us if justice is no more stable than a roll of the dice — when lawyers are seen as simply brokers of a chance at fate? I see nothing good in the long run if we continue to push forward with this marketing frenzy. And the reasoning that “we must do it because our competitors are doing it” will ultimately destroy respect for the law.
The Florida Bar has been a national leader in developing rules governing legal advertising. The Bar has tried to balance the growing interest in the use of advertisement (billboards, radio, and television) in an environment that maintains the character and ethical obligations that lawyers owe to the public. The Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, subsection 4-7, Lawyer Advertising Rules, provide framework for this practice, speaking against deceptive, inherently misleading, and unduly manipulative or intrusive advertisements.
The BOG recently addressed one significant component to the advertisement explosion: “past results.” The new guidelines, which include lawyer websites, are intended to clarify recent advertising rule amendments that allow lawyers to refer to past results if they are “objectively verifiable,” a standard blessed by the Florida Supreme Court in January 2013. (See full summary of action at www.floridabar.org).
The Bar will continue to fulfill our obligations in enforcing the rules. However, I believe every member of our profession needs to take note of this trend of “marketing on steroids” and be concerned about long-term consequences.
We cannot expect people to respect the law unless we are willing to uphold her with dignity. We cannot treat legal services like a “blue light special” at a big-box discount store and expect respect. The strength of our profession rests with our ability to maintain integrity — because, when our institutional integrity is lost, we hold no moral authority to advocate for justice.
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