Some people may find ambulance-chasing lawyer advertisements only slightly less annoying than the worst of the ads featuring fast-talking salesmen hawking deals on new cars.
It wasn`t that long ago that lawyers were prohibited from advertising. But in the years since the Supreme Court ruling that the ban on legal advertising was a violation of the First Amendment, advertisements by attorneys have become commonplace.
“Every lawyer knows attorney advertising is here to stay, and that it is a long-term benefit to the consumer,” said Richard Schwartz, one of the most visible advertising attorneys in Jackson. “Lawyer advertising benefits the consumer because it improves performance and price by creating more competition. The more competition in the market, the better service the consumer is going to get. As a result, the consumer is the ultimate winner.”
Schwartz said advertising also notifies the consumer of valuable legal rights they might not be aware of. An example he gives is a recent advertising campaign he did in the Delta to inform farmers who were exposed to a certain chemical that they were at risk of bladder cancer and were part of a proposed class action settlement.
Schwartz thought the class action settlement being offered by the company involved was woefully inadequate. As a result of his advertisements in the Delta area, Schwartz represented about 1,000 people who didn`t want to be part of the class action settlement.
“The company`s plan was to pay anyone with bladder cancer $10,000, but there wasn`t a provision for adequate medical monitoring to prevent the cancer,” Schwartz said. “For people who already had bladder cancer, we were able to get a substantially larger settlement than $10,000. And for those who don`t have cancer yet, we were able to create an outreach program where the company has to come to farmers, inform them of the dangers and provide treatment if necessary. If you catch it early enough, you can prevent the cancer. If it isn`t treated, it can be fatal.”
Schwartz said he believes that, in this case, lawyer advertising not only helped consumers, but probably also saved some lives.
A recent study by the American Bar Association concluded that attorney advertising is beneficial to both consumers and attorneys.
Tim Hall, an associate professor of law at the University of Mississippi, agrees that attorney advertising can be valuable. “Lawyer advertising is a way of alerting people about their legal rights, and giving them access to legal services,” he said.
On the flip side, attorneys who run advertisements that are considered in bad taste can reflect badly on the profession.
“I think there are good things and bad things about attorney advertising,” Hall said. “There`s always the possibility of the sleaze factor, attorney advertising that looks bad for the profession. But sometimes you have to swallow the bitter along with the valuable. And this is that kind of situation.”
Hall said legal advertising is currently treated like other forms of advertising, which receive some protection under the First Amendment. But while the government can`t ban attorney advertising outright, false and misleading advertisement is prohibited.
“When lawyers mislead people, they can be disciplined just like people advertising a false deal on television about a car can be punished,” Hall said. “Most people are not so concerned with that, but are concerned that some legal advertisements that make lawyers look bad because it makes them look like snakes. And that kind of complaint about lawyer advertising is not readily handled under the Supreme Court`s current construction of the First Amendment.”
The Mississippi Bar Association (MBA) is responsible for handling complains about false and misleading attorney advertisement. Besides fielding complaints, the bar association also monitors advertising.
“If we feel the information is false, misleading or deceptive, then we investigate and take whatever action we deem effective,” said Mark Martz, general counsel with the MBA.