The Ethical Esquire
By: Maryam Hatcher, Esq.
Dear Ethical Esquire: I just opened up my own firm, and things are going great. In fact, I had three back-to-back trial victories. I plan on using some of the money I’ve earned in legal fees to put out a 15-second commercial. Since I won’t have a lot of airtime, I’d like to just say the following very quickly: “I just won big for my last three clients and I will win big for you!” My only concern is that I vaguely remember hearing something about how it is unethical for lawyers to advertise on television. Is that true?
– Mr. Big Winner*
Dearest Mr. Big: What an exciting time for you! Not only have you taken on the admirable (and formidable!) task of launching your own law firm, but you have also been able to achieve favorable outcomes for your clients. Considering your good news, the last thing I would want to do is to rain on your parade…
And yet, rain I must.
Mr. Big, as you undoubtedly recall from your education in legal ethics, attorneys have certain guidelines they must follow when advertising their services. Specifically, Rule 7.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits untruthful or misleading statements in attorney advertising. The comments to that rule clarify that an “advertisement that truthfully reports a lawyer’s achievements on behalf of clients of former clients may be misleading if presented so as to lead a reasonable person to form an unjustified expectation that the same results could be obtained for other clients.” While you are no doubt skilled beyond measure, you simply cannot lead your future clients to believe that because you achieved favorable outcomes with one client you will achieve the same outcome with another. This is especially true given that you have not provided any insight into the type of cases that you won. For example, if you successfully defend a teenager with no criminal record on her first joy riding charge, that does not mean you would have the same result when defending a career criminal facing his fifteenth grand theft auto charge – right? In short, you need to rethink your commercial script. Just go ahead and rip it up.
And now, I give you the rainbow after the rain. To answer the actual question you posed, advertising on television is probably A-OK (of course, check the ethics rules in your jurisdiction). Though it was traditionally believed that attorneys should avoid advertising on television, many jurisdictions have abandoned that view. For example, Model Rule 7.2 allows attorneys to advertise via a recorded medium. Further, the rule’s comments explain that prohibiting attorney advertisement on television “would impede the flow of information about legal services to many sectors of the public.” Thus, attorney advertisement on television is something of a public service.
So feel free to let the world know you’re a zealous advocate; jut don’t be overzealous about making promises that may be deemed misleading!
Now – go forth and be ethical!
*Disclaimer: “Mr. Big Winner” is a fictional advice seeker. This blog is satirical in nature and, though it aims to provide helpful guidance regarding professional responsibility dilemmas, it is not intended to offer legal advice.
Next month, the Ethical Esquire will discuss parting ways with your clients.