“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?

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