West Virginia Record

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Enabling lawyer advertising

By The West Virginia Record | Jan 20, 2006

Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin (D-Mingo) says lawyer advertising in West Virginia is "shameful" and a "fraud."

We say it's plain entertaining.

Like those relationship squabbles fueling TV pseudo-counselors Maury Povich and Jerry Springer, live "client chasing" by real, actual lawyers is always good for a chuckle.

It's obviously been good for the lawsuit-filing business as well. Once a rarity in the ads arena, lawyers seem close to eclipsing used car salesmen as our society's most prolific promise-makers.

"Get in a wreck, get a check," declares one of our favorite slogans.

Sen. Chafin is nostalgic for a long-gone era, when gentlemanly "counselors" used their advanced degrees to help we mere civilians maneuver arcane legal matters. In those days, our courts were a place to be avoided, not a means by which anyone lucky enough to have been aggrieved might strike it rich.

The law has only recently become a business opportunity. Lawyers didn't always see a "wreck" as an occasion to leverage their client a "check," of which they could keep one-third, of course. Client chasing -- standard practice these days -- once was considered unethical.

In his 1953 book "Legal Ethics," author Henry Drinker of the Philadelphia Bar Association advised caution for lawyers worried about being too conspicuous when they hung wooden shingles outside their offices.

"The test is whether the sign is intended and calculated to enable persons looking for a lawyer, already selected, to find him, or to attract the attention of persons who might be looking for a lawyer, although not for him," Drinker wrote.

Does "I can get you more money" pass the inconspicuous test?

Thanks to the U.S. Constitution, such value judgments aren't generally up for debate. The Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that lawyers have a First Amendment right to advertise.

And advertise they have.

And while we just laugh at the well-dressed, late-night video panhandling, Sen. Chafin's charge that much of this advertising has been a "carnival-like thing" isn't without merit.

Such ads have negative consequences for our state, as they maintain a growing public perception that our courts dispense cash, not justice.

Problem is, in West Virginia this isn't just perception. It's part truth, which explains this quandry.

Why will some lawyers do almost anything -- even make us laugh or embarrass their profession -- as a means of getting clients?

Because it's worth their while. And so long as our courts keep it so, "worth" will trump "shameful," anyday.

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