Lawyers question enforcement of advertising rules

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One of Indiana’s most familiar legal names – a frequent flier on buses, billboards and TV commercials – says enforcement of disciplinary rules governing attorney advertising is a mess and needs an overhaul.

“It’s enforcement by ambush,” said longtime personal-injury attorney Ken Nunn of Bloomington-based Ken Nunn Law Office. “I’m terrified I’m going to accidentally mess up. This shouldn’t be on my worry plate.”

Nunn and others say Indiana’s attorney advertising regulations are unclear, unevenly enforced and offer little practical guidance to avoid running afoul of the rules. A technical or even an unknowing violation can result in a costly and time-consuming disciplinary case.

“The whole process of helping lawyers, that’s gotten lost in the shuffle,” Nunn said. “Other states are helping their lawyers.”

advertising-caress-15col.jpg Caress Law Group advertises on an Indianapolis billboard. (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

But the Indiana State Bar Association is taking tentative steps in that direction and might be looking to the Bluegrass State for guidance. The Kentucky State Bar has developed a pre-approval system in which its Attorneys’ Advertising Commission reviews ads in advance to ensure they comply with state Supreme Court rules. If an ad contains only information specifically permitted under state rules – things such as name and address, practice areas, education and the like – the review is free. A fee of $75 to $175 applies for other ads.

Nunn said he thinks most attorneys who advertise would gladly pay a fee for advance approval that also buys peace of mind. “Charge me,” he said. “I’ll sleep at night.”

Calls for changing the state’s attorney advertising rules enforcement increased after the recent Supreme Court disciplinary action In Re: Anonymous, in which Crown Point attorney Tim Kelly was issued a private reprimand for testimonials appearing on the Law Tigers website and for failing to include an address on a communication. Kelly was affiliated with Law Tigers but had no control of content that appeared on the site.

keller A Keller & Keller billboard in Indianapolis. (Photo courtesy Lamar Advertising Co.)

Ronald Layer, a partner in the Dyer law firm Layer Tanzillo Stassin & Babcock P.C., chairs the Attorney Advertising Committee of the Indiana State Bar Association. Layer said his committee and the bar’s Ethics Committee recently formed a subcommittee to explore changing the regulatory system.

“Our hope is to either get some sort of pre-approval or the next-best thing,” Layer said. That might be an advisory opinion that would assure an attorney who has sought pre-approval that “they’re not going to get whacked” over the content of an ad.

“In the meantime, we’re trying to disseminate as much information as we can so attorneys can at least get some help, albeit at this point kind of unofficial,” he said.

Layer said he was sympathetic to Kelly’s situation. “This is someone who tried to get information and tried to do what was right. Maybe it was a misstep, but was it an intentional breach? One would argue absolutely not.


advertising-wamsley-15col.jpg Vaughn Wamsley advertises with a billboard near Interstate 465. (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

“The point is, if we can get these committees going in the direction we’d like them to go, the Law Tigers thing wouldn’t have happened,” Layer said.

Certain regulations on attorney advertising have been struck down on First Amendment grounds in Florida, Louisiana and New York, among others. The very definition of advertising varies from state to state, as do the rules, and some critics say rules haven’t kept pace with an age where a website might be viewed as a law firm’s address.

Nunn’s firm advertises heavily, spending about $2.5 million annually. He said the firm typically is either No. 1 or No. 2 in the state, neck-and-neck with Keller & Keller P.C. of Indianapolis.

Carmel attorneys at Hollingsworth & Zivitz pay to build their brand, but partner Kena Hollingsworth estimated less than 5 percent of firm revenue goes toward advertising.

The firm’s lawyers and staff brainstorm to come up with sometimes-cheeky and attention-grabbing ads like the IndyGo full-bus wrap that carries the firm’s 317-DIVORCE phone number and the slogan “Hire us before your spouse does.”

“When we started the firm almost 10 years ago now, we were young girls just out of law school, so we knew we had to do something to set ourselves apart a little bit,” Hollingsworth said. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we are serious lawyers.”

Advertising-BlackburnGreen-15col.jpg A Blackburn & Green billboard. (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

But she acknowledged compliance with advertising rules is always a concern in those brainstorming sessions, and she’d favor a pre-approval system. “I think it would be great,” she said.

“We’re always very mindful of what the rules are,” Hollingsworth said. “First and foremost, we would never misrepresent ourselves or do anything unethical.” The firm’s business is about 90 percent family law, she said, and its ads aim to present an image that clients feel they can relate to during an emotional time.

“That’s the overwhelming feedback I’ve received,” she said of the firm’s ads. “At the end of the day, that’s how we get clients in the door.”

Terre Haute personal-injury attorney James O. McDonald acknowledges that it’s sort of an advertisement when his firm’s website contains the message, “Non Advertising Trial Lawyers.” But it also hammers home a point he thinks resonates with potential clients: “I choose not to march in that parade.”

ken-nunn3-15col.jpg Ken Nunn advertises on an IndyGo bus. (IL Photo/Submitted photo)

“I think when clients come to an attorney through advertising, they’re less apt to have confidence in the lawyer’s advice when it comes to personal-injury work,” McDonald said, averring that firms which advertise heavily have a “factory” reputation and may settle cases for less than they’re worth. He believes advertising can backfire, especially direct solicitations to people injured in accidents. He said he’s had clients who “resent it very much.”

“To me, the worst thing (lawyer ads) do is give the potential jury pool the impression that people are trying to get something for nothing.”

Hall Render Killian Heath & Lyman P.C. partner John C. Render said he’s concerned that clients who choose an attorney on the basis of an ad might not be making the best choice. Render said his firm limits advertising to such communications as sending informational newsletters to existing clients.

“What it may come down to is the public chooses a lawyer based on who has the most resources to advertise,” he said. “There’s something intuitively wrong with that in my mind, and I don’t think it serves the public very well.

hollingsworth-zivitz-bus-15col.jpg Hollingsworth & Zivitz P.C.'s advertisment on an IndyGo bus. (IL Photo/Submitted photo)

“If I can advertise or want to with a TV ad, am I going to get more calls, more clients, etc.? I might … because advertising works,” Render said. “I’m just not sure it has the same value in choosing professionals.”

Nunn acknowledges that being a heavy-advertising attorney carries a stigma, but he rejects the “settlement factory” criticism. He’s heard it, “and yet, we lead the state of Indiana in terms of doing the most jury trials for injured clients,” he said.

He also doesn’t accept claims that the public can’t be trusted to choose or not choose a lawyer based on advertising. “We can trust them as jurors,” Nunn said, “but somehow they’re too dumb to understand what an advertisement is.”•


  • Prior Restraint
    I don't have any problem with the bar association reviewing ads before publication and issuing an advisory opinion, but if this creates a defacto mechanism for prior restraint, I think that's handing over First Amendment rights that we should be fighting to preserve.

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  1. This new language about a warning has not been discussed at previous meetings. It's not available online. Since it must be made public knowledge before the vote, does anyone know exactly what it says? Further, this proposal was held up for 5 weeks because members Carol and Lucy insisted that all terms used be defined. So now, definitions are unnecessary and have not been inserted? Beyond these requirements, what is the logic behind giving one free pass to discriminators? Is that how laws work - break it once and that's ok? Just don't do it again? Three members of Carmel's council have done just about everything they can think of to prohibit an anti-discrimination ordinance in Carmel, much to Brainard's consternation, I'm told. These three 'want to be so careful' that they have failed to do what at least 13 other communities, including Martinsville, have already done. It's not being careful. It's standing in the way of what 60% of Carmel residents want. It's hurting CArmel in thT businesses have refused to locate because the council has not gotten with the program. And now they want to give discriminatory one free shot to do so. Unacceptable. Once three members leave the council because they lost their races, the Carmel council will have unanimous approval of the ordinance as originally drafted, not with a one free shot to discriminate freebie. That happens in January 2016. Why give a freebie when all we have to do is wait 3 months and get an ordinance with teeth from Day 1? If nothing else, can you please get s copy from Carmel and post it so we can see what else has changed in the proposal?

  2. Here is an interesting 2012 law review article for any who wish to dive deeper into this subject matter: Excerpt: "Judicial interpretation of the ADA has extended public entity liability to licensing agencies in the licensure and certification of attorneys.49 State bar examiners have the authority to conduct fitness investigations for the purpose of determining whether an applicant is a direct threat to the public.50 A “direct threat” is defined as “a significant risk to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by a modification of policies, practices or procedures, or by the provision of auxiliary aids or services as provided by § 35.139.”51 However, bar examiners may not utilize generalizations or stereotypes about the applicant’s disability in concluding that an applicant is a direct threat.52"

  3. We have been on the waiting list since 2009, i was notified almost 4 months ago that we were going to start receiving payments and we still have received nothing. Every time I call I'm told I just have to wait it's in the lawyers hands. Is everyone else still waiting?

  4. I hope you dont mind but to answer my question. What amendment does this case pretain to?

  5. Research by William J Federer Chief Justice John Marshall commented May 9, 1833, on the pamphlet The Relation of Christianity to Civil Government in the United States written by Rev. Jasper Adams, President of the College of Charleston, South Carolina (The Papers of John Marshall, ed. Charles Hobson, Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2006, p, 278): "Reverend Sir, I am much indebted to you for the copy of your valuable sermon on the relation of Christianity to civil government preached before the convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Charleston, on the 13th of February last. I have read it with great attention and advantage. The documents annexed to the sermon certainly go far in sustaining the proposition which it is your purpose to establish. One great object of the colonial charters was avowedly the propagation of the Christian faith. Means have been employed to accomplish this object, and those means have been used by government..." John Marshall continued: "No person, I believe, questions the importance of religion to the happiness of man even during his existence in this world. It has at all times employed his most serious meditation, and had a decided influence on his conduct. The American population is entirely Christian, and with us, Christianity and Religion are identified. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, and did not often refer to it, and exhibit relations with it. Legislation on the subject is admitted to require great delicacy, because freedom of conscience and respect for our religion both claim our most serious regard. You have allowed their full influence to both. With very great respect, I am Sir, your Obedt., J. Marshall."