Lawyer ads: let the client beware!

CHIEF Justice Warren Burger doesn't mince words when it comes to lawyers who do things he doesn't like. For instance, he has in the past scored some of his legal brethren, calling them ``hired guns'' who sell their services to the highest bidder. More recently, the US Supreme Court's top jurist lashed out at a relatively new lawyer practice which, ironically, his own high tribunal has clearly sanctioned: advertising.

Reportedly (his remarks were off the record but overheard by some news people), Mr. Burger equated some lawyer services advertisements with ``sheer shysterism'' and suggested that he would rather ``dig ditches'' than promote a barrister trade via the news media.

Why is the chief justice making such a big deal about this? Is it not legitimate to sell legal wares the same way one sells soap, automobiles, and patent medicine?

As Tevye suggests in ``Fiddler on the Roof,'' the real issue is tradition.

The official line of United States lawyers over the decades has been that advertising just wasn't dignified for a member of the bar. An advocate of justice, they held, should not have to stoop to hawking his goods and services through the media.

In fact, William Falsgraf, newly installed president of the American Bar Association -- the world's largest association of lawyers -- still feels that way. But he reluctantly concedes that it is in the ``economic interest'' of lawyers to advertise.

And since the courts have legally cleared the path, ABA's top official says, the main question is self-restraint on the part of practitioners.

What Mr. Falsgraf and many of his colleagues are really talking about is good taste.

``Some [advertisements] are in very bad taste,'' the bar official admits. ``And they not only demean the person doing the advertising, they demean the entire profession.''

An example of a ``poor judgment'' ad which Chief Justice Burger and legal ethics groups often point to involved a television spot that first showed a professional football star scoring a touchdown and then cut to a lawyer's office where the same super-athlete suggested that he would avail himself of the firm's services if he ever had a personal injury claim. The advertisement was withdrawn by its sponsors.

But even the lingering memory of it continues to trigger the anger of many anti-advertising barristers.

Defenders of legal advertising insist that most of it is in good taste. Newspaper and legal journal inserts usually succinctly identify the private practitioner or firm, carry no illustrations, and focus on a specialty -- for example, malpractice suits, domestic relations, real estate law, etc.

And those who purvey legal services for the poor insist that only through advertising would the have-nots in society be aware that low-cost services (often storefront clinics) are available to handle their welfare, immigration, and other legal problems.

Further, not that many lawyers take advantage of their right to advertise, an ABA poll points out. Only about 13 percent of the nation's 600,000 practicing attorneys sell their wares via newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.

However, some fear the dam is about to break and that abuses in legal-services advertising are likely to spill out everywhere.

The Television Bureau of Advertising recently reported that lawyers spent $28 million for advertising last year -- a jump of 58 percent over 1983. And the figure is almost certain to continue its upward spiral.

Why? For one thing, advertising seems to be a good economic investment, says the ABA's Falsgraf. He says fellow lawyers have told him that $100 spent for media promotion often produces $500 in fees.

Also, recent court decisions have expanded on a landmark 1977 Supreme Court ruling giving lawyers the right to advertise. For instance, the United States high court now has overruled state laws that restrict the use of illustrations in legal ads, solicitation by mail, and use of television by lawyers hawking their services.

Some restraints on in-person solicitations still exist. And laws generally protect the public against fraudulent or misleading ads for legal services.

But the new message from the courts is clear: Lawyers have the constitutional right to advertise and citizens may not be denied accurate information about their legal rights.

Perhaps the emphasis should be on ``accurate.''

Unfortunately, there will always be charlatans and those who would misuse a trusting public. But this is true in most every profession.

Let the lawyer advertise. But let the client beware!

A Thursday column

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