Incremental Changes Proposed to ABA Model Advertising Rules

There’s a lot of congratulatory talk going on about the “bold” changes proposed for the ABA model rules relating to attorney advertising.

And sure, there are things to like in the proposed changes. The new solicitation rule, in particular, focuses more on substance than form, and contains an exception for solicitations made to experienced buyers of business-related legal services. Those are both positive developments.

But bold change? Naw; more like incremental adjustments to a set of rules that should have been gutted 40 years ago when Bates v. Arizona was decided.

My single biggest disappointment is that the ABA ethics committee didn’t take this opportunity to get rid of Rule 7.2.  This is the Rule that contains the cruftiest, most problematic provisions: those relating to “the reasonable cost of advertising,” restrictions on paying for “recommendations,” and limits on use of “lawyer referral services.” These are the sort of vague terms that attorneys and regulators can’t help but over-interpret in ways that harm consumers and lawyers alike.

It’s not like the committee didn’t have reason to look into the utility of Rule 7.2.  The 2015 APRL Report – heavily leaned on by the committee  in making its proposed changes – makes the case persuasively that Rule 7.2 is unnecessary to protect the public, often unconstitutional in its application, and chilling in its effect on consumer access to information about legal services. Yours truly also submitted comments to this effect.

Yet Rule 7.2 remains. And in some ways, the proposed changes make the Rule even worse. For starters, the definition has been changed to try and make the rule applicable to non-advertising “communications” – despite the fact that these rules can only constitutionally limit commercial speech. And then there’s this little gem that’s been added to the Comments:

“A communication contains a recommendation if it expresses, implies or suggests value as to the lawyer’s services.”

Yeah, like THAT’S never gonna be interpreted too broadly.

Again: attorneys have a hard enough time telling when and where these rules apply. Bar regulators and ethics committees persistently over-apply the rules. And for what? There’s no evidence that the specific ad rules benefit the public. Yet instead of streamlining the Rules, instead of cutting back to the core concept – no false or misleading advertising – we’re getting more of the same old thing.

The ABA ethics committee is holding an open hearing at its Vancouver meeting on February 2, and accepting written comments until March 1. If you’d prefer to see some real change here, please make your voice heard.

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