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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.”•

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  • 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. No second amendment, pro life, pro traditional marriage, reagan or trump tshirts will be sold either. And you cannot draw Mohammed even in your own notebook. And you must wear a helmet at all times while at the fair. And no lawyer jokes can be told except in the designated protest area. And next year no crucifixes, since they are uber offensive to all but Catholics. Have a nice bland day here in the Lego movie. Remember ... Everything is awesome comrades.

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  3. All these sites putting up all the crap they do making Brent Look like A Monster like he's not a good person . First off th fight actually started not because of Brent but because of one of his friends then when the fight popped off his friend ran like a coward which left Brent to fend for himself .It IS NOT a crime to defend yourself 3 of them and 1 of him . just so happened he was a better fighter. I'm Brent s wife so I know him personally and up close . He's a very caring kind loving man . He's not abusive in any way . He is a loving father and really shouldn't be where he is not for self defense . Now because of one of his stupid friends trying to show off and turning out to be nothing but a coward and leaving Brent to be jumped by 3 men not only is Brent suffering but Me his wife , his kids abd step kidshis mom and brother his family is left to live without him abd suffering in more ways then one . that man was and still is my smile ....he's the one real thing I've ever had in my life .....f@#@ You Lafayette court system . Learn to do your jobs right he maybe should have gotten that year for misdemeanor battery but that s it . not one person can stand to me and tell me if u we're in a fight facing 3 men and u just by yourself u wouldn't fight back that you wouldn't do everything u could to walk away to ur family ur kids That's what Brent is guilty of trying to defend himself against 3 men he wanted to go home tohisfamily worse then they did he just happened to be a better fighter and he got the best of th others . what would you do ? Stand there lay there and be stomped and beaten or would u give it everything u got and fight back ? I'd of done the same only I'm so smallid of probably shot or stabbed or picked up something to use as a weapon . if it was me or them I'd do everything I could to make sure I was going to live that I would make it hone to see my kids and husband . I Love You Brent Anthony Forever & Always .....Soul 1 baby

  4. Good points, although this man did have a dog in the legal fight as that it was his mother on trial ... and he a dependent. As for parking spaces, handicap spots for pregnant women sure makes sense to me ... er, I mean pregnant men or women. (Please, I meant to include pregnant men the first time, not Room 101 again, please not Room 101 again. I love BB)

  5. I have no doubt that the ADA and related laws provide that many disabilities must be addressed. The question, however, is "by whom?" Many people get dealt bad cards by life. Some are deaf. Some are blind. Some are crippled. Why is it the business of the state to "collectivize" these problems and to force those who are NOT so afflicted to pay for those who are? The fact that this litigant was a mere spectator and not a party is chilling. What happens when somebody who speaks only East Bazurkistanish wants a translator so that he can "understand" the proceedings in a case in which he has NO interest? Do I and all other taxpayers have to cough up? It would seem so. ADA should be amended to provide a simple rule: "Your handicap, YOUR problem". This would apply particularly to handicapped parking spaces, where it seems that if the "handicap" is an ingrown toenail, the government comes rushing in to assist the poor downtrodden victim. I would grant wounded vets (IED victims come to mind in particular) a pass on this.. but others? Nope.

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