CHARLESTON – As the state Legislature begins to look at examining lawyer advertising, a Virginia attorney says the problem is that members of his profession never have been taught to market themselves and their services.
Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, has suggested that lawyer advertisements in the Mountain State should be more professional. The plan likely will be modeled after one in Kentucky. The Kentucky Bar Association has a nine-person advertising committee that reviews ads, issues opinions and send offenders to an inquiry commission, according to its Web site.
The resolution sponsored by Chafin, a trial lawyer himself, says, in part, "The legal profession's public image, once perceived as honorable and noble, has eroded into a carnival-like thing, akin to a blue-light special, touted on a used car lot."
But Ben Glass, an attorney in Fairfax, Va., says most lawyers step into the unknown when they begin to advertise.
"The main problem is that lawyers never have been taught to effectively market, said Glass, who also does lectures and seminars on lawyer advertising. "So they just copy what other people do, and then they try to shout louder with color, gory scenes or fistfuls of cash."
Instead of doing that, Glass suggests looking at other industries and their advertising.
"The thing they do in common is provide access to quality information to consumers, which gets a consumer to call you first because you're not trying to make a sale on this first interaction," he said. "It's like saying, 'I've got quality information, and I've got ways for you to test my information against others so you can make the best decision for your case.'"
Glass, whose Web site says he is a personal injury and medical malpractice attorney, said he grows tired of lawyer ads featuring talking frogs, flying saucers, pit bulls and the like.
"As attorneys, we've shot ourselves in the foot with tacky advertising," he said. "And that leads to an increased perception that we're all greedy, rich, ambulance chasers.
"When, in fact, the vast majority of trial lawyers are good folks running small businesses. They don't want to demean the profession. They just haven't figured out a way to do it any differently.
"There's no class in law school about building your practice or marketing your practice."
Glass said his five-lawyer firm buys ads in phone books and does a lot of Internet advertising. He said the firm doesn't do TV or radio spots. And he says he has seen more potential clients contacting the firm because of the marketing.
"Lawyer marketing can be effective and highly ethical," he said. "And it makes for a better practice because, frankly, the good lawyers don't want the clients attracted by talking frogs or the fistfuls of cash."
Charleston attorney Danny Cline does a lot of advertising in the Kanawha Valley. Many people probably remember his television ads featuring crash test dummies calling him about a potential accident suit or another when a giant telephone crushes insurance adjusters.
Cline, a partner at Farmer, Cline & Campbell PLLC, says he tries to convey his sense of humor in his ads.
"I have a sense of humor," he said. "I'm a serious attorney, and I've been in practice more than 20 years. But we like to think our commercials make people realize we're approachable. We're not going to talk down to people."
Cline, who also has several billboards in the Valley, said he has no problem with ads being examined before they're available to the public. In fact, he says he tries to have his commercials examined by other counsel before they're aired.
"As long as that's done for constitutional reasons, I don't have a problem with that," he said. "We never wanted to go on an unethical route. If there were a fair body … that makes my job a little easier.
"What I don't like is legislating taste."
Before it started advertising heavily, Cline said his firm was one generally hired by other firms to help them with their cases.
"Right now, we're getting our own cases," he said, attributing that, in part, to the advertising. "I've got a lot of compliments on our ads. I've also gotten calls from people who don't like the ads."
House of Delegates member Mark Hunt also is a Charleston personal injury attorney who advertises heavily on radio and television.
He said advertising is necessary because there is so much competition for personal injury work, especially since recent legislation limiting medical malpractice lawsuits has led many lawyers who specialized in that to find other work.
"We actually spend quite a bit of money advertising," said Hunt, a partner of Hunt & Serreno. "That's what it seems to take to get the cases in. There's a lot of competition out there for personal injury because there are not many viable medical malpractice cases now. So now, those attorneys now are doing other personal injury cases."
Calling his ads family-oriented, Hunt said they wouldn't be affected if they had to be reviewed.
"My ads are done professionally," Hunt said. "I've had friends in Kentucky tell me my ads would be fine there. I think my ads would be OK'd by any agency."