Category Archives: Advertising

Why Care About Attorney Advertising Rights?

I am occasionally asked why I spend so much time focused on the tension between lawyer advertising regulation and the free speech rights of attorneys.  The perhaps-too-obvious answer is that my employer, Avvo, is built upon attorney advertising, and I’ve got a vested interest in seeing that attorneys continue to be able to advertise.

And it’s certainly true that working at Avvo has colored how I think about attorney advertising – but perhaps not in the way one might think.  For while I certainly do have a vested interest in seeing that attorneys continue to be able to advertise, that particular fight has long been over.  Attorneys can advertise, attorneys will continue to be able to advertise, and attorneys will pay good money to advertise for the foreseeable future.

For that, Avvo (and I) thank them.

But what I’ve discovered in 7+ years at Avvo is that the state Rules of Professional Conduct governing lawyer advertising are a sloppy mess, doing a disservice to lawyers and consumers alike.

Since Bates v. Arizona was decided nearly 40 years ago, it’s been settled law that the RPCs can’t stop lawyer advertising, or even limit those ads deemed to be beneath the dignity of the profession. Some might argue that this is a bad thing.  But that’s like trying to stop the tide. In the years since Bates, the Supreme Court has greatly solidified the commercial speech doctrine, with the First Amendment clearly protecting the right of businesses to engage in non-deceptive advertising.  Absent an abrupt, 180-degree reevaluation of how the First Amendment relates to commercial speech, this is not going to change.

Unfortunately, rather than regroup in the aftermath of Bates and devise more streamlined, meaningful rules, the bars simply kept their existing frameworks and bolted on begrudging exceptions for attorney advertising.

The result? Now attorneys have to parse the rules to understand whether they are participating in a “referral program,” or doing something that might be considered “solicitation,” or having the temerity to suggest they might “specialize” in an area of law. There are any number of ordinary means of communicating with other human beings that might technically run afoul of the bar’s advertising rules – particularly as means of communication proliferate.

Thanks to Bates, we’ve now got ever-more-ridiculous attorney television and billboard ads.  Yet at the same time, attorneys ponder whether they can respond to inquiries posted on Twitter, or highlight on their websites feedback from clients.  Where straightforward advertising is clearly allowed, other, more direct forms of communication – which are often far more valuable – exist in a legal gray area.  In this way, the uncertainty of the rules acts as a tax on lawyer communications, making it much harder than it should be for consumers to get information about legal services.

Some lawyers might think that’s a feature, not a bug.  After all, less direct communication means less opportunity for lawyers to deceive clients.  But that condescending viewpoint hardly gives clients – or lawyers, for that matter – the credit they deserve.  In most things speech-related, America has chosen the “more speech solution” as the preferred approach.  Rather than censoring speech, we’ve determined that it’s preferable to let competing voices hash things out in the marketplace of ideas.

Unfortunately, in the marketplace of ideas around legal services, we’ve got the screeching of the Law Hawk and the “life’s short” lady – and a whole lot of attorneys who are going around not communicating with potential clients out of fear of ending up on the wrong side of the Bar.

That’s messed up.  And that’s why I care about restoring attorney free speech rights, and scaling back the reach of the advertising regulations so that they are properly focused only on false and misleading advertising – and not on a clutch of outdated, picayune concerns.

Naughty Words Attorneys Can’t Use

Attorney ethics rules offer some great examples of the problems inherent in the mechanistic application of the law.  Sometimes, it’s a matter of a well-founded rules being applied to circumstances where technology has gutted the purpose of the rule . 1  But other times, it’s a case of the expansive regulator: the deacons at the bar stretching the breadth of the rule far beyond its logical (or constitutional) limits.

Back in 1990, the Supreme Court held, in Peel v. ARDC, that a bar can’t prohibit an attorney from truthfully advertising that they had been certified as a specialist by a bona fide organization.  The Court also expressed skepticism about the state’s position that the word “specialist” has a unique, narrow meaning apart from its generally understood meaning of “a person who has special knowledge and skill relating to a particular job.” 2  Nonetheless, many states (including Florida and New York) continue to prohibit attorneys from using terms like “specialist,” “specialize,” “expert,” and “expertise” except in conjunction with a bona fide certification.

What these states are missing is that it’s the certification that’s doing the work.  It’s false and misleading if attorneys hold themselves out as being “certified” specialists or experts when no legitimate certifying agency has conferred the honor. But the use of general terms like “specialist” or “expertise” on a standalone basis, with no claim of third party certification?  There is virtually no question that prohibiting such use is unconstitutional.

The wonderfully-named New Orleans attorney Kearney Soniat du Fossat Loughlin thought so too.  He had been disciplined by the Louisiana disciplinary board for stating on his website: “Loughlin & Loughlin is a plaintiff-oriented pure litigation firm specializing in maritime personal injury and death cases.”  Loughlin wasn’t content to take this slap on the wrist, so he appealed the discipline to the Louisiana Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of Louisiana’s prohibition on the use of the word “specializing.”

Loughlin won.  Unfortunately, he won because the court found that a) he hadn’t intended to break the rule and 2) the public wasn’t harmed.  It didn’t address his constitutional argument.

It’s great the Loughlin was willing to take on the bar.  I wish more attorneys would do so in cases like this.  There are real problems with false advertising that the bars can go after, but policing the use of  harmless, ordinary words isn’t one of them.

Notes:

  1. For example, prohibitions on fee-splitting being applied to purchases via Groupon, where there is no danger whatsoever of the fee split interfering with the lawyer’s independent professional judgment.
  2. Thanks, Mirriam-Webster!

Attorneys: It’s Not Always OK to Lie

SangaryLook, it’s OK to lie.  Or, at least, outside of some fairly specific circumstances, the government can’t punish you for lying.  Go check out U.S. v. Alvarez – and the now-unconstitutional “Stolen Valor Act” to see what I mean.

That doesn’t mean it’s not despicable to pass oneself off as a Medal of Honor winner, and the same First Amendment that protects our lies 1 also allows us to call out those practicing such behavior as the pathetic lowlifes that they are.

Which bring us to the tale of Los Angelese attorney Svitlana Sangary, who festooned her law firm website with numerous photos of Ms. Sangary hanging with celebrities.  Problem was, it was all phony – Sangary had photoshopped herself into all of the pictures.  She now finds herself facing the likely suspension of her law license.

Now, it’s important to note that the potential suspension recommended by the California State Bar Court wasn’t only because Sangary put some phony photos on her website.  It’s also because she utterly failed to cooperate, behaved in a manner that’s textbook “How Not to Handle a Bar Complaint,” and generally acted as a poster child for the proposition that admission to the Bar is no guarantee of fitness to practice law.

But I want to focus on the photos.   Sangary would have a good First Amendment defense if the bar had come after her for having the photos at issue here on a personal blog, facebook profile, or the walls of her office.  Just like everyone else, attorneys have the right to lie.  They might do so for any number of reasons: lack of self-esteem issues, to piss people off, or abject failure to understand social norms.

And again, remember: this isn’t to say that it’s not shameless and pathetic for a lawyer (or anyone, really) to behave in this way.  It is.  It’s just that there  can’t be any state-sanctioned penalties for so doing.

However, one reason for lying that isn’t protected by the First Amendment is commercial speech.  Not only is commercial speech in general subject to less protection than “core” speech (intermediate vs. strict scrutiny), false commercial speech is entitled to NO First Amendment protection.

So, Sangary’s photos.  There’s no question her website is a form of advertising, nor that the page with the doctored photos was designed to fulfill a particular marketing task: instilling Sangary’s potential clients with a feeling of trust, cachet, and exclusivity.   Thus the photos are a form of false advertising, and easily form the basis for Sangary to be disciplined.

That, plus the crazy way she handled it.  Seriously, the details in the judge’s order are a stark example of why consumers need to do more than be starstruck by a few celebrity photos when it comes time to choose a lawyer.

Notes:

  1. Or, more aptly, protects us from the chilling effect of laws allowing the government to determine what is true and what is false.

Publicity Rights vs. Media Law

I’m going to expand on a theme that recurs in my world with depressing frequency: the idea held by many (including many lawyers, who should know better), that the “for profit” nature of a company somehow limits that company’s right to publish information about an individual.

The usual argument is that the publisher – let’s say Avvo in this case – is publishing information about lawyers.  Because Avvo is “profiting off” those directory listings of lawyers, it must get permission from the lawyers involved (and, presumably, share the wealth if such permission is obtained).   1

This argument is a conflation of the publicity rights doctrine (which holds that companies DO have to gain permission from and compensate endorsers) with “Media Law 101” (which holds that everyone – for-profit companies included – has a fundamental First Amendment right to write about other people.

It’s really not very complicated.  If Avvo was to run an ad campaign claiming that “Attorney Brian Tannebaum thinks Avvo is the greatest,” we’d need to get Brian’s permission to do so.  We’d be engaging in commercial speech, and we can’t just appropriate the value of Brian’s publicity for ourselves. 2

But when we create a profile of Brian, and an opinion about him in the form of the Avvo Rating?  That’s not commercial speech, and it’s fully protected by the First Amendment.  We don’t need his permission to publish it.  It is neither commercial nor infringing on his right to monetize his own publicity.

And what of the fact that Avvo makes money from its publishing activities?  After all, we wouldn’t be able to sell ads if we didn’t have those attorney profiles and Avvo Ratings, right?

It doesn’t matter.  At all.

It’s the distinction between co-opting someone’s persona for marketing vs. covering that person in the media.  If it’s the latter – whether an Avvo profile, a feature article in The New York Times or a listing in Google – there is nothing the subject has to say about it.

And that’s precisely how it should be – because as should be obvious by now, we wouldn’t have any media if this wasn’t the case.

Notes:

  1. Avvo does not sell directory listings or charge readers to use the site.  It publishes the information proactively for consumers, and is supported by advertising sales.
  2. Note that publicity rights issues most often come up with respect to celebrities and sports stars who already have a market for their endorsement.  I expect I could get Brian’s endorsement for the price of a bottle of halfway-decent Chateneauf du Pape.

3rd Circuit Smacks NJ on Compelled Speech

Atlantic City, NJ Boardwalk Hall
Atlantic City, NJ Boardwalk Hall

Another day, another compelled speech case – this one involving lawyer advertising.

I’ve discussed the Dwyer case before. Dwyer sued to challenge a New Jersey advertising guideline preventing lawyers from using words of praise from judges in advertisements – unless the advertisement included the entire text of the judicial opinion.   As I mentioned at the time:

Quotes from judges are likely to carry a lot of weight with consumers, largely because of their scarcity value: consumers will assume that judges will dole out such praise sparingly, not realizing that these compliments are functions of the workaday business of ruling on fee applications, rather than some rarefied benediction.  It’s easy to see why the use of such quotes in advertising would be, as the state of New Jersey argued, inherently misleading without some form of disclosure.

However, as the Third Circuit noted, in a decision remarkable for its clarity on this nuanced and under-appreciated area of speech regulation (and contrary to the more expansive interpretation the DC Circuit adopted just weeks ago), disclosure requirements must be “reasonably related to preventing consumer deception.”  They also can’t be unduly burdensome.

The Court went on to find the New Jersey Guideline wanting on both counts.  There was no indication that presenting the entire text of a decision would in any way lessen consumer deception, and the requirement was incredibly burdensome in that it effectively prevented ANY form of advertising including such judicial plaudits.

It’s a classic screw-up on New Jersey’s part.  Using these statements in ads does lead to consumer deception.  What the state should have done is consider the first amendment issues and craft a narrower regulation. 1 Instead, the New Jersey regulators just went with the ham-handed approach to attorney speech regulation and called it a day.  It’s an approach, that despite a growing number of Circuit Court setbacks, remains distressingly common – despite the fact that consumers, attorneys and the bars alike all lose in the process.

 

Notes:

  1. The 3rd Circuit decision even offers a helpful suggestion of a disclaimer that would survive constitutional scrutiny:  “This is an excerpt of a judicial opinion from a specific legal dispute. It is not an endorsement of my abilities.”

DC Circuit is COOL with Compelled Speech

Earlier this year, I noted two DC Circuit decisions on compelled speech – disclaimer requirements around country of origin labeling (“COOL”) for meat and “conflict free” diamonds. In each case, the court struck down the labeling requirements, applying the “intermediate scrutiny” standard for commercial speech regulation.

In a notable decision this week the DC Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed the COOL case. And in so doing, it explicitly overruled language in the “conflict diamond” decision applying the intermediate scrutiny standard.

Why is this important?  Because the court is saying that disclaimer and disclosure requirements are only subject to the lightest of constitutional burdens – the requirement that the compelled speech be “reasonably related” to the government’s interests and objectives.  This is a very low bar (and to make matters worse, the court declined to even hold that the government’s interest must be substantial).

The critical case at play is one I’ve written about before: Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel.  Zauderer isn’t as clear as it could be on this point, but most courts (including the two panels of the DC Circuit that first heard the COOL and conflict-free cases) have read it to apply the lower bar of “reasonably related” only to those cases where the compelled disclosure is necessary to prevent deception.

The DC Circuit has now thrown the gates wide open, allowing virtual carte blanche forall manner of speech the government might want a business to disseminate.  This bodes well for proponents of things like lawyer advertising disclaimers and GMO labeling requirements, but it is certainly a setback for free speech.

Here’s hoping our very free-speech-friendly Supreme Courts steps in and clarifies that compelled speech, just like prohibitions on speech, should be carefully circumscribed.

UPDATE: Jonathan Adler at the Volokh Conspiracy has a more in-depth look at the decision and the vexing issues it raises.

“Publicity Rights” and Censorship

Did you realize Manuel Noriega was still kicking?  I thought sure the former Panamanian dictator was dead, but apparently he’s still around, albeit old, in prison, and apparently possessed of a litigious streak.

Eugene Volokh brings the news tNoriega Picturehat Noriega has filed a publicity rights lawsuit against Activision, claiming that a character in a recent “Call of Duty” video game is based on Noriega.  Volokh then goes on to show how the troubling state of publicity rights law creates all sorts of potential threats to culture.  If people have broad control over how their “images” are used – even when those “images” are composites, or used for parody – there will be a massive chilling effect.

And this isn’t only a concern for culture and the arts.  It also applies to news reporting and criticism.  I’ve seen firsthand how people who don’t want to be talked about online try to use publicity rights claims to shut discussion down.  Until and unless this increasingly-popular claim gets reined in – and the appropriate level is to limit it to commercial advertising – this danger is going to persist.

What Do Lawyers Need to Know About NY’s Social Media Ethics Guidelines?

That they shouldn’t be reading hand-wringing fluff like this recent piece in the National Law Review.

Look, I realize not every attorney wants to be the test case for the constitutionality of their state’s attorney speech restrictions.  But it would be nice if at least a few more attorneys stood up and advocated for their own First Amendment rights, rather than accepting at face value all of the restrictions the regulators try to foist on them.

Read on for a more critical look at New York’s Social Media Ethics Guidelines.

NC Attorney Goes 0-4 on Ad Claims

In a classic example of Eric Turkewitz’ famous aphorism, “outsource your marketing, outsource your ethics,” a North Carolina attorney has just been disciplined for a number of sloppily-worded claims on her website.   The Grievance Committee of the North Carolina bar did not take kindly to attorney Stephanie Villaver’s “dog ate my homework” defense blaming her website designer.  The fact that she may have tried to cover up her own inattention to the matter surely didn’t help things, either.

However, my interest is in the advertising claims that formed the basis of her discipline.  On her website, Villaver stated that:

  1. She is “Jacksonville’s best car accident claim attorney.”
  2. She is the “Jacksonville, North Carolina’s personal injury specialist.”
  3. Her team “specializes in traffic ticket matters.”
  4. She can get a person “the settlement you deserve.”

The grievance committee found that each of these statements violated the Rules of Professional Conduct, to wit and in order:

  1. A claim that cannot be factually substantiated.
  2. Implication that an attorney is a certified specialist.
  3. Ditto.
  4. Guaranteeing results.

Again, it’s likely the case that the attorney’s evasive and non-responsive handling of this matter was the primary reason the Bar lowered the boom on her.  Had she immediately corrected the website, there’s almost no chance she would have been disciplined.

But the phrases in question – should they really form the basis of discipline?  The first and the fourth are not “claims that can be factually substantiated” or “promises of results;” they are nothing more than the same vacuous puffery that every business that has given up employing any creativity in marketing uses in a half-hearted attempt to reach new customers.  These are anything but effective advertising messages.  But that’s also why they shouldn’t be regulated by the bar: they aren’t going to cause any consumer confusion.  Every consumer knows how empty of meaning these terms are.

As for the use of the dread “specialist” term, North Carolina has fallen for the trap of expanding its regulatory reach beyond its constitutional limitations.  For although NC’s rule in this area (7.4) prohibits attorneys from indicating they have been certified as specialists in a given area unless they have such certification (a restriction the Supreme Court found lawful in the Peel case), the comments to the rules expand it to make ALL uses of the term “specialize” verboten – even when there is no implication that a third party has certified the attorney in that area. 1

I don’t feel that badly for an attorney who didn’t pay attention to her marketing and then failed to quickly address the problem.  But I do wish the states would devote their enforcement resources to those engaging in real, consumer impacting abuses – and not those who simply resort to hackneyed marketing cliches.

Notes:

  1. Yes, the comment to the rule states that “the use of the word “specialize” in any of its variant forms connotes to the public a particular expertise often subject to recognition by the state;” that, I daresay, is larding far too much significance onto a term synonymous only with focus and concentration in a particular subject.

More Compelled Speech Knocked Down

I was traveling in Scotland when this opinion came out last week, and it warms the cockles of my Scots-Irish heart to see more comeuppance for the state trying to tell us what to do.

In Nat’l Assn. of Manufacturers v. SEC, the DC Circuit dispensed with the “conflict free” labeling requirement for diamonds.  As the court rightly notes, the state only enjoys the easy-peasy “rational basis” standard of review when the compelled disclaimer is “reasonably related to the State’s interest in preventing deception of consumers.”   Otherwise – like when it wants to send a political message or inform consumers about something or other – its requirement must meet intermediate or strict scrutiny.