Missouri lawyers argue over advertising rules

Saturday, November 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Newly proposed requirements for lawyers' TV, radio and direct mail ads drew opposition Friday from lawyers who rely on the solicitations.

Missouri already has some restrictions on what lawyers can say and what they must disclose in ads. The new proposal would make the disclosures more prominent and restrict testimonials and claims about past successes.

A Missouri Bar subcommittee has recommended a series of new rules for lawyer advertising. The Bar's board of governors would need to recommend the changes to the Missouri Supreme Court, which would then decide whether to implement them.

Bill Lasley, one of the Bar subcommittee members who helped draft the proposed advertising rules, said the legal profession needs to police itself.

"Offensive, self-promoting, feather-building ads are a detriment to this profession -- that makes us look like used-car salesmen," Lasley said during a discussion of the proposal at a Bar conference.

But Ed Herman, a St. Louis lawyer, said the restrictions would hurt the public by making it harder to get legal information. Herman said the proposed restrictions are a solution searching for a problem and would favor some lawyers over others.

"When there's more ads, there's more [legal] claims; when there's less ads, there are less claims," Herman said. "So this is tort reform on the front end."

The debate highlighted an ongoing controversy about the degree to which lawyers should be allowed to find clients. Some believe that advertising should be restricted while others argue it's a useful, cost-effective tool for lawyers to find business and to alert the public of its legal rights.

One of Missouri's existing advertising rules requires a written disclaimer stating: "The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely upon advertisements."

One of the suggested changes would require that disclaimer to be printed on a high-contrast background that is at least one-third the size of the font for the lawyer's phone number. TV ads would need to both display the disclaimer and have it spoken at the same pace that the attorney's phone number is delivered.

An executive for a Springfield TV station complained in a letter sent to the Bar this summer that the proposed changes would hurt his business and make it harder for the public to get information about legal representation.

"Let's be honest with ourselves. The only beneficiaries of these new restrictions will be those lawyers who feel competitive pressure from their colleagues who have been using broadcast advertising," wrote Mark Gordon, the general manager for television station KSFX.

The updated rules also would bar lawyers from using celebrity endorsements unless they have been a client, characterizing rates and fees as "lowest" or "discount" or referencing past successful cases unless the attorney was the lead counsel. All advertising would need to be submitted to the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel, which is responsible for enforcing legal ethics rules.

But that office expressed concern about whether it could handle the influx of paperwork.

In a letter sent Monday to the Missouri Bar, Chief Disciplinary Counsel Alan Pratzel said he doesn't want copies of every lawyer ad sent to his office.

"It is reasonable to assume that there would be significant labor and storage costs," Pratzel wrote.

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