Category Archives: Advertising

New Jersey – Still Wrong on Lawyer “Accolade” Advertising

The New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Attorney Advertising recently released a “Notice to the Bar” regarding attorney “accolade” advertising: the touting by attorneys of various awards they might have received (including, presumably, their Avvo Ratings).

The Notice goes on at some length regarding the appropriateness of publicizing such awards, and the disclaimer requirements the Committee imposes on any such advertising. What do these disclaimers look like? The Notice contains a helpful example:

For example, a reference to the Super Lawyers accolade should provide:

“Jane Doe was selected to the 2016 Super Lawyers list. The Super Lawyers list is issued by Thomson Reuters. A description of the selection methodology can be found at www.superlawyers.com/about/selection process detail.html. No
aspect of this advertisement has been approved by the Supreme Court of New Jersey.”

So if you’ve been named a “Super Lawyer,” and you want to let people know, the New Jersey bar regulators want you to include a lengthy disclaimer, including a little pursed-lips head-shake noting that Supreme Court does not approve, not one bit.

This is, to put it mildly, ludicrous. It’s also unconstitutional: there are limits to the state’s ability to compel speech in the form of mandatory disclaimers.  And although the way these limits apply is a little more complicated than a straightforward commercial speech analysis, as a general rule compelled disclosures must be necessary to:

  • Cure otherwise-misleading advertising, or
  • Protect consumers from unwitting harm, or
  • Advance some other significant government interest.

Such mandatory disclosure requirements must be, like all commercial speech regulations, narrowly tailored.

Does the New Jersey Supreme Court’s requirement meet any of these requirements? Of course not. There’s nothing misleading about an attorney stating truthfully that a third party has bestowed an award. To the extent anyone wishes to dig into the methodology behind that award, such data is typically available online in a few mouse clicks.  And there’s no significant government interest here; rather, it’s just the Committee’s distaste for accolades, and its attempt to make it too cumbersome to advertise such things.

And here’s the kicker: the Committee really should know better, because a federal court smacked it back on a very similar issue less than two years ago. In finding that the Committee’s disclosure requirements around advertising laudatory quotes from judicial opinions was unconstitutional, the Third Circuit noted:

Guideline 3 as applied to Dwyer’s accurate quotes from judicial opinions thus violates his First Amendment right to advertise his commercial services. Requiring Dwyer to reprint in full on his firm’s website the opinions noted above is not reasonably related to preventing consumer deception. To the extent the excerpts of these opinions could possibly mislead the public, that potential deception is not clarified by Guideline 3. In any event, what is required by the
Guideline overly burdens Dwyer’s right to advertise.” 1

And the rule here re disclaimers on accolade advertising? I’d say it ticks all three boxes: not reasonably related to preventing consumer deception, not directly advancing an important government interest, and overly burdening the right of lawyers to advertise.

It would be nice if the New Jersey Committee on Attorney Advertising learned from its past overreaching. And it would great if it could show some respect for the ability of the public to weigh and discern the meaning of legal accolades. But that kind of balanced thinking doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

h/t ABA Journal

“Tastefulness” Regulation by Proxy

Sometimes I feel like I pick on Florida, but the Sunshine State just continues to offer up an unending stream of lawyer advertising regulation problems. This week’s entrant? The Jacksonville firm of Johns & Von Roenn‘s ill-timed ad directed at the families of sailors lost on the El Faro, the freighter that went missing off Florida in Hurricane Joaquin (“ill-timed” because the ad apparently ran the same day the Coast Guard announced it was calling off the search for survivors).

The Bar wasted no time opening an investigation into whether the lawyers complied with Florida’s review-and-approval process for lawyer ads. And two former Bar presidents denounced the ad, stating:

Regardless of whether this ad violates the Advertising Rules of The Florida Bar, it is offensive to the public and to the overwhelming majority of lawyers. It is an embarrassment to our profession that a lawyer would attempt to profit from a tragedy such as this.

Look, it’s not hard to see the potential for offensiveness here. But the Bar can’t regulate attorney advertising for tastefulness – that battle was decisively lost nearly 40 years ago, in Bates v. Arizona. Yet they continue to fight it, with statements like this and tastefulness regulation-by-proxy through the advertising review commission.

I understand the impulse to want to protect the profession from the money-grubbing, mercenary image that our advertising too often projects. But it’s not just the fact that the law is crystal-clear here. There’s also the fact that, in our rush to burnish our professional image, we’re neglecting the real interests of potential clients.

Let’s dispense with the pearl-clutching and get to the truth:  most lawyers, like most doctors and dentists, profit off of human misery. We do so because we offer skills and services that, hopefully, help people navigate through all manner of darkness to a better outcome than they would have reached without our help.

So are we, out of narcissistic self-interest, going to regulate away the right of those people, those potential clients, to get information about their legal rights? Attorney Chris Johns, who ran the offending ad, puts it well:

I can guarantee you that TOTE [the company that owned El Faro] and their executives and their team of attorneys met prior to giving their one-sided, unilateral news conferences.  I certainly believe the family members of the crew should have the same benefit of legal counsel and the same benefit of experience as TOTE has.

Well, yeah. They should. And while mass advertising may not be the highest-and-best way to choose counsel, it remains the primary way that the public begins the process of getting informed about their legal rights.

It’s fine for attorneys to take Johns & Von Roenns to task; shame and opprobrium from fellow members of the bar is probably the most effective (and the only legally-sound) way to regulate tastefulness in advertising. The Bar sure as hell shouldn’t be doing it, either directly or through the technicality of the advertising review board (which is itself an institution long-overdue to be consigned to the dustbin of history).

But even then, if you’re a lawyer who finds this kind of advertising offensive, ask the question: is our professional image more important than the interests of the public that needs our services?

Federal Judge Frees Up Two More Words for Lawyer Marketing

FINALLY – a federal court has ruled on a particular bugaboo of mine: the completely-asinine restriction that many states have on lawyers using the verboten terms “expertise” and “specialty.”

In finding that’s Florida’s rule violates the First Amendment, Federal District Court Robert Hinkle noted:

It should be noted, too, that the Bar’s approach is unlikely to solve the problem it posits. The Bar readily allows a lawyer to assert that the lawyer handles only cases of a specific kind. So a lawyer can say personal-injury cases are all the lawyer handles, or that personal-injury cases are the lawyer’s business. The Bar apparently believes that a potential client will attribute a different meaning to these assertions than to the assertion that a lawyer specializes or has expertise in personal-injury cases. But the Bar has offered no empirical or even anecdotal support for the supposition. When First Amendment rights are at stake, such an unsupported (and indeed unintuitive) supposition will not do.

Bravo. And big kudos to the attorneys at Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley for taking this one on. While it’s understandable that not every attorney wants to be the test case for the constitutionality of their state’s ad rules, it’s great to see a law firm stand up for the rights of lawyers and the public alike.

Climate Change Denial and Commercial Speech

So there’s this: U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, along with a bunch of concerned climate scientists, wants to pursue RICO charges against “corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change.”

As Walter Olson explains, policy debates move forward through a process of forceful advocacy, and having the government put its thumb on the scales via threat of criminal sanctions for advocacy is a horribly misguided idea:

If it is potentially criminal to take an unreasonable point of view, or not have all of your facts straight, or commission a badly lopsided poll or badly lopsided piece of scientific research, then there are going to be a lot of targets for the law.

Besides being a really bad idea, it would seem that such a move would clearly violate free speech rights. As we’ve seen in the Alvarez and Dreihaus cases, the First Amendment provides wide latitude to lie. 1

But we also know that the First Amendment doesn’t protect lies in commercial speech. The RICO-agitating climate scientists aren’t targeting individuals, but rather corporate and organizational interests. Could the commercial speech doctrine provide a path forward?

Ordinarily, I would say “not a chance.” The test for commercial speech in a setting that is not obviously advertising isn’t met here – advocacy and lobbying are not advertising formats, and “climate change denialism” is a far cry from referencing a specific product.

So it would be ridiculous to claim that advocacy and lobbying should be subsumed within commercial speech, right?

Right?

Maybe these folks should look at filing something in California . . .

Notes:

  1. Or, more accurately, it protects the right to not face the risk, uncertainty, and cost of legal proceedings to establish that you’re not lying.

Florida Cuts Out Lawyer Referral Services

The Florida Bar has once again been stymied in an effort to (slightly) liberalize its advertising rules.

Four years ago, it was the Florida Supreme Court redlining the Bar’s lawyer website rules, resulting in what I like to call the “Florida Law Firm Website Developer Full Employment Act” – an enactment which is still being litigated.  And now the court has rejected the Bar’s approach to lawyer referral services, holding that lawyers in the Sunshine State simply flat-out can’t work with lawyer referral services that aren’t owned by lawyers.

The putative target of the court’s ire is outfits like “Ask Gary,” a lawyer-and-doctor referral service that has been no stranger to controversy and allegations of fraud. And as the court points out, there may be some problems with these services, which channel callers to participating medical and legal providers:

[S]ome referral services have used advertising to disguise direct
solicitations; some patients, in filling out purported medical care paperwork, have unknowingly signed undisclosed and unexplained law firm retainers; and some patients, unhappy with their medical treatment at a referral clinic, have gone to their referral-designated lawyer for help, only to be told—even in situations where the lawyer was already seeking [personal injury protection] benefits for them from an insurance company—that the lawyer could not help them because the lawyer represents the clinic.

OK, so that’s not good.

The Florida Bar Special Committee on Lawyer Referral Services proposed a number of regulatory changes, including limitations on accepting and making cross-referrals with doctors for the same accident. The Bar didn’t accept these proposals, instead proposing a lighter set of regulations.

The Supreme Court was not impressed. It responded by backhanding the Bar, saying that Florida lawyers simply can’t work with lawyer referral services that aren’t owned by Florida lawyers. Period.

That’s pretty big smackdown.

Now, it certainly wouldn’t be outlandish to ask whether the Florida Supreme Court got so churlish that it exceeded its power to limit lawyer speech. Likewise, it might be fair to inquire about what’s so special about lawyer-owned referral services (other than the Bar’s regulatory leverage over their owners) that keeps them from having the same problems the court identifies with the “Ask Gary”s of the world.

But whatever – I have a more parochial concern: the fact that some hand-wringing lawyers will invariably perceive this decision as suddenly preventing Florida attorneys from working with Avvo.

So if you’re wondering the same thing, here’s the simple answer: It doesn’t.

Why? Because Avvo isn’t a lawyer referral service.

I’ve written about this before, but I will summarize it again here: a “lawyer referral service” vets a potential client’s concern and refers that person to a specific attorney. The problem is in the “vetting:” many such services market themselves as “matching” clients with the right lawyer. Many potential clients no doubt think that means that their unique needs are being lined up with the best possible participating attorney . . . rather than being sent to whichever lawyer has “bought” that lead.

It’s easy for that kind of marketing approach to cross into consumer deception, and that’s why some level of regulation may be appropriate.

Now, someone might go read Florida Rule of Professional Conduct 4-7.22(c), which defines “lawyer referral services,” and say, “that’s a pretty broad definition – why shouldn’t that include Avvo?” 1

You’d have to squint pretty hard to get that to apply to any of the products and services Avvo provides. And remember: advertising regulations can’t be read broadly. The state has the burden of showing that its regulation is both necessary and no more extensive than necessary – which means these regulations must be read narrowly. And I have to imagine that the members of the Florida Supreme Court are smart enough, and well-versed enough in constitutional law, to know that they can’t promulgate a rule that would purport to obviate any-and-all lawyer participation in non-lawyer owned advertising programs.

Because that would be crazy – and contrary to 38 years of well-established First Amendment law.

I’ll further note: Florida’s rules distinguish between “lawyer referral services” and “lawyer directories,” which are defined in Rule 4-7.23(a) as:

A lawyer directory is any . . . entity that receives any consideration . . .  for publishing a listing of lawyers together in one place . . . in which all the participating lawyers and their advertisements are provided and the viewer is not directed to a particular lawyer or lawyers.”

Now, I won’t comment at this point about the overreach of this particular rule, but the fact that it (along with the rest of Florida’s extensive advertising regulation) exists show that the Florida Bar considers referral services to be a distinct subset of lawyer advertising.

So I don’t think the Florida Bar will get confused about this, but some lawyers might, so I wanted to lay this all out here.

However, if the Bar wants to use this opportunity to tighten up its definition of a “lawyer referral service,” that wouldn’t be such a bad thing . . .

Notes:

  1. (c) Definition of Lawyer Referral Service. A “lawyer referral service” is:
    (1) any person, group of persons, association, organization, or entity that receives a fee or charge for referring or causing the direct or indirect referral of a potential client to a lawyer drawn from a specific group or panel of lawyers; or
    (2) any group or pooled advertising program operated by any person, group of persons, association, organization, or entity wherein the legal services advertisements utilize a common telephone number or website and potential clients are then referred only to lawyers or law firms participating in the group or pooled advertising program.

Ohio Wins: Dumbest Ethics Opinion Ever!

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of asking for permission before doing something. Why would I give someone else the power to tell me that I can’t do that thing? Unless that thing is clearly out-of-bounds,  I’d much rather just make the call myself, and then argue about it later if anyone has a problem with my decision.

Ohio Supreme Court, Columbus, Ohio
Ohio Supreme Court, Columbus, Ohio

Unfortunately, a lot of lawyers prefer the deliberate approach. This is why we have attorney advertising ethics committees and their opinions. And as I’ve pointed out before, these ethics opinions are often a problem: deaf to the First Amendment, conservative to a fault, they far too often hew to a line far beyond any responsible (or constitutional) regulation of attorney speech.

To whit, our latest entrant in the ethics opinion Hall of Shame: an opinion out of the Buckeye State which finds that attorneys giving seminars to the public cannot engage in dialogue with people who come up to them after the seminar asking legal questions. These poor muted devils are limited to “advis[ing] that person to contact the office to make an appointment or to seek legal counsel of his or her choice.”

That is, to put it charitably, absolutely bonkers. 

To the extent states can prohibit direct solicitation of clients, that regulatory authority is limited to in-person (or the technological equivalent of in-person) solicitation. This rule – first articulated in a case involving an ambulance-chasing attorney from, yes, Ohio – has parameters well-defined by no less than four Supreme Court cases (OhralikPrimus, Shapero, Went For It).

It should hardly bear mentioning that any permissible limitations on lawyers soliciting business are limited to solicitation itself. If the potential client starts the conversation – whether by calling your office or asking a question after a seminar you’ve just given – it’s  not solicitation. End of story.

Unless you sit on the Supreme Court of Ohio Board of Professional Conduct, and issue an asinine, blatantly unconstitutional ethics opinion that muzzles attorneys and denies consumers access to legal information even when they are affirmatively asking for it.

This is madness – and a reminder of the ever-present perils of asking for permission.

h/t Brian Faughnan

New York Issues Social Media Guidelines

The New York State Bar has issued a set of “Social Media Ethics Guidelines.”  As New York’s is not a mandatory bar, and these are mere guidelines, and not rules, one might pause and wonder why anyone cares. But as Kevin O’Keefe points out, because it’s New York, attorneys who (like me!) pay attention to the developing intersection between legal ethics and technology will imbue these guidelines with outsized importance.

So on we go.

What do I like about the Guidelines?  I like that they state that a lawyer’s duty of competence includes understanding how social media works. For many people today, social media is a far more important communication device than a telephone is.

Do you think you can competently represent clients – particularly consumer clients, in matters where communications between parties may be at issue – without knowing how a telephone works?

The same thing now goes for social media.

I like the fact that the Guidelines repeat the advice I often give: if you want  to avoid ethics problems when using social media, don’t post social media updates that take the form of advertising. You get a two-fer that way, since you don’t have to think about the rules, AND you’re less likely to come across as a spammy huckster.

Finally, I like that the guidelines provide solid, common-sense guidance on dealing with social media in litigation, from counseling clients to investigating opposing parties and jurors.

What don’t I like about the Guidelines?

I don’t like the fact that the Guidelines continue the silliness of deeming taboo the innocuous term “specialist.”

I don’t like the fact that the authors of the Guidelines are apparently unfamiliar with 47 USC 230(c)(1), and how it would preempt any attempt to find in the rules a requirement that attorneys be responsible for things that third parties independently post about them online.

I don’t like the fact that the Guidelines summarily conclude that specific legal advice can’t be given over social media. Of course it can; “social media” includes channels that are both distributed (public) and direct (private). It’s perfectly appropriate – although perhaps not advisable – to communicate with clients over private social media channels.

And what’s more, a lot of that stuff that lawyers think is “legal advice” when posted on social media? It’s not.

And finally, what I REALLY don’t like is the same thing that gets my goat on most efforts like this: the fact that, despite having dozens of authors, many of whom are no doubt fine attorneys, the Guidelines make little-to-no effort to reconcile the ethics rules with the First Amendment constraints in which they must operate.

Let’s remember: even in New York, attorneys have First Amendment rights.

 

Florida: Text Messages are Direct Solicitation

Oh, Florida.

Let me get this out of the way first: I don’t think lawyers soliciting clients via text message is very effective. It probably comes across as amateurish and cheesy. And if a law firm isn’t very, very careful, text solicitation risks running afoul of the well-intentioned-but-stinking-turd of a regulation that is the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

Which is a very bad thing indeed.

But text messages are direct solicitation? The direct solicitation that can only constitutionally be prohibited if it rises to the level of intrusiveness and undue influence found in a personal interaction with a trained advocate?

That’s what the Florida Standing Committee on Advertising decided,  voting 6-1 to treat text messages as prohibited direct solicitation. In so doing, the Committee had a series of amusing exchanges about the relative use cases for text messages and mobile phones, but apparently did not consider – at all – the constitutional issues involved.

I mean, it’s not like the Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in on the acceptable contours of prohibiting attorney solicitation on four separate occasions, the last of which involved a Florida regulation.

I haven’t got any great interest in seeing solicitation-via-text. But is it too much to expect that bar regulators look to the constitutional limits on their authority, rather than acting like they regulate in a vacuum?

Update 9/10/15:

The board of bar governors in Florida has reversed the Ad Committee, clearing the way for attorneys to solicit via text messages . . . as long as Florida’s cumbersome attorney advertising rules are complied with.

Yay for a Bar paying attention to the first amendment!

But just because it’s allowed doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And unless you’ve got a very clear bead on 1) your ROI and 2) how you’re going to navigate TCPA compliance, marketing via unsolicited text messages is a horrible idea.

On “Ambulance Chasing”

This article from former Georgia Bar President Ken Shigley is illustrative of how tough an issue client solicitation can be.  As Shigley notes, the days following the loss of a loved one, already grief-filled and exhausting, can get even worse when lawyers start insinuating themselves:

Over the years, clients and others have told me stories of being approached even in hospitals and funeral homes, in the first hours or days after a tragedy, by people who represent themselves as “counselors,” “investigators” and even clergy, who slip into conversation a question about whether they have a lawyer yet.

According to Shigley, the problem isn’t so much Georgia law – which already prohibits in-person and telephonic solicitation, as well as written solicitation within 30 days of an accident – but the lack of interest among the public and prosecutors in reporting and pursuing solicitation cases.

But is solicitation really a problem?

I can see where it looks that way to Shigley; he’s a long-time plaintiff’s personal injury attorney and a car accident attorney with a great track record and a sterling reputation. I’m sure it annoys him no end to see less scrupulous – and probably less competent – personal injury attorneys playing fast and loose with the law.  And there’s no question that many people, in the days following a tragedy, are in no shape to be making a choice of counsel.

And yet, as Shigley notes, claims adjusters and other insurance representatives don’t labor under similar restrictions. They are free to communicate with those who have suffered losses, and potentially to get these putative plaintiffs to give up valuable rights under circumstances where those who would otherwise represent them are barred from proactively communicating about these rights.

I don’t think this is a tenable state of affairs. And I doubt that Georgia’s law – which includes criminal sanctions – would survive constitutional scrutiny if the Supreme Court reviewed it.

It’s been 20 years since the Supreme Court heard an attorney solicitation case, and that decision – authored by probably the most ardent defender of attorney advertising regulation in the modern era, Sandra Day O’Connor – was split 5-4.

O’Connor, obviously, has long since left the bench. And today’s Supreme Court is far more respectful of the First Amendment than the court was in Florida Bar v. Went For It.  It’s hard to imagine a court that has decided in recent years that the government can’t censor independent campaign advocacy, punish citizens for pretending to be war heroes, or bar nutcases from protesting funerals, finding that the “disrepute to the bar” and general sleaziness of ambulance chasing is sufficient to overcome the first amendment interest in having full access to information about one’s legal rights.

This doesn’t mean that regulations couldn’t bar deceptive advertising, or even in-person or telephonic solicitation. But a 30-day ban on written solicitation? While such advertising may seem undignified and offensive, the precedent on which restricting it rests is increasingly shaky.

Competitive Keyword Advertising: Ethical, But Dumb

Santa Clara lawprof Eric Goldman is coming out with an academic paper on the ethics of competitive keyword advertising. If you wonder what “competitive keyword advertising” is, check out my post from last October.

Eric and I both believe that there is no legal ethics issue whatsoever with the practice. Many lawyers disagree, but I’ve yet to speak to one who really “gets” what competitive keyword advertising IS, and what it IS NOT.

It’s not deceptive. It’s not misleading. It’s simply pointing out to someone who is looking up a competitor’s name that they have other options.

As Eric stresses, having choices like that is a really good thing for consumers.

Unfortunately, many lawyers take a proprietary approach to their names. They bristle at the thought that another lawyer would try to nudge their own ads into searches done for the first lawyer’s name, despite being unable to articulate precisely why such a practice should be wrong. 1

But as Carolyn Elefant asks, even if competitive keyword advertising doesn’t violate the ethics rules, should attorneys do it? Carolyn doesn’t think so, calling it the  “gaining [of] an undeserved advantage on someone else’s coattails.”

I don’t agree with that reason; I’m pretty sold on Eric’s point that the practice is non-deceptive and potentially good for consumers and competition.

However, I still think most lawyers shouldn’t do it. Why? Because it’s most likely going to be completely ineffective; a distraction that delivers little to no value.

Fairly or not, it’s going to piss off your competitors. They might bring a frivolous lawsuit against you that you have to defend. They might file a pointless bar grievance you’ll have to deal with. They might engage in an e-shaming campaign over your behavior. Or they might just say snide things about you behind your back.

And what do you get for that?

Most law practices are intensely local businesses. The “name search volume” – the number of monthly Google searches for a law firm or lawyer’s name, against which your ad will be displayed – might well number in the single digits. If you are in a big market, or your competitor is well-known, they may number in the  low hundreds.

For example, I checked the keyword volume for the firm of Habush Habush & Rottier, a prominent personal injury firm in Milwaukee, WI.  Habush brought a lawsuit against a competitor a couple of years ago for competitive keyword advertising, which, predictably, they lost.

How many searches are done in Milwaukee for the Habush firm? In March, there were 70. And that was the best month in the last year!

Habush search volume

It gets worse. The click-through rate for competitive keyword ads – the number of those searches for your competitor’s name that actually result in click-throughs to your website – is estimated at less than 2%. That means that even if there are 100 name searches for your competitor in a given month, you can expect all of 1-2 clicks on your ad.

That’s “clicks” – not “calls,” and certainly not “clients.”

You’ve got to ask yourself whether results that meager can possibly be worth the aggravation. For the vast majority of lawyers, the answer should be a resounding “NO.” There are far better places to focus one’s marketing and business development resources.

Notes:

  1. And no, it’s not because of trademark. Trademark doesn’t let you exclude all other uses of your name; only those that create a likelihood of confusion. It certainly doesn’t offend trademark for a competitor to use your name in comparative advertising, or as a filtering signal for serving up their own ads.