Racy legal ad sparks debate

  • Medill News Service
  • May 11, 2007 @ 6:05 AM
A sexy billboard advertising the services of a divorce lawyer has sparked the kind of debate normally heard in a courtroom.

The ad, posted near swinging Rush Street,  featured  partially dressed female and male bodies  sandwiching the words, "Life is Short, Get a Divorce."

The billboard, taken down by the city on grounds that it lacked the proper permit, snagged widespread attention in Chicago and across the country, spurring a mixture of reactions.

"We always hear about some complaints about one lawyer from another lawyer [about advertisements], something comes up every so often and then it goes away," said Art Garwin, a professionalism council member at the American Bar Association.

The ABA cannot sanction any ads or define what is appropriate or inappropriate, Garwin said. The association provides the Model Rules of Professional Conduct that each state can adopt.

Advertisements by lawyers are regulated at the state level by the bar committee. The rules of advertising for lawyers vary from state to state. The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Committee of the Illinois Supreme Court polices the content of ads, said Nancy Slonim, deputy director for policy communications at the ABA.

In the past it was considered unprofessional for lawyers to advertise and there were rules prohibiting the practice. But that changed in 1977 when the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the rights of lawyers and other professions to advertise granted by the First Amendment.

Nowadays ads for lawyers can be found in all forms. Billboards, TV commercials and newspapers are letting people know who they can contact when they need a lawyer.

"Advertising is a fact of life; good advertising makes clients feel happy and validates the decision to hire a law firm," said Nat Slavin, president of the Legal Marketing Association. Advertising is an acceptable practice for law firms as long as they adhere to ethical standards, Slavin added.

In Illinois, the standard  is that ads cannot contain false or misleading information. 

Lawyers have often labored under the burden of bad reputations with the public, and  unethical advertising can contribute to that image.

A 2006 Georgetown University journal on legal ethics said that unethical and dishonest are some of the traits used to describe lawyers, according to the journal.

"We all hear lawyer jokes and a lot of people are suspicious of lawyers," said Cynthia Wilson, associate professor of law at Northwestern University. Even people who receive free legal services from a pro bono lawyer are distrustful of lawyers, Wilson added.

"I think lawyers have a special responsibility to uphold the legal system. The way the law structure is in this country, people need lawyers in represent them in court," Wilson said.

This is where advertising can come in and help by informing regular people where they can find a lawyer, Wilson said. But lawyers have an ethical duty to help society and the point of advertising for them is to let people know that they are there to serve them, Wilson said. This is very different from advertising to sell a product, she added. 

 The strategies of marketing are applied in the same way--identify the target audience and message and convey it to them in an eye catching way, said Ross Fishman, president of a marketing firm in Highland Park which  handles a dozen  law firms.

"I think we have to recognize we are in a professional service sector. There is a different audience with different personalities and different needs, so it is important to set yourself apart," Fishman said.

The concern of risqué ads comes mostly from other lawyers who complain that these kinds of ads tarnish the legal profession and breaks the code of ethics.

Whether the ads are tasteful or distasteful, "model rules don't regulate lawyers' image, professionalism or public perception as a result of ads because of the First Amendment," said Will Hornsby, staff council for legal services at ABA and author of "Marketing and Legal Ethics."

The Legal Marketing Association supports positive views of lawyers, Slavin said. That can be bolstered by lawyers' involvement in the community or pro bono work, Slavin said.

Clifford Law Offices in Chicago is involved with the community in many ways. They have donated funds for closed captioning tools at a local television station to help the disabled, said Pamela Menaker, communications partner at the firm.

It is important for lawyers to do good deeds and the public should have the understanding that lawyers can do good things, Menaker added.