The public perception of personal injury lawyers who advertise and who’s most likely to get hired, according to academic legal studies
Lawyer advertising on television has been controversial since the day it began. On one hand, there are those who think legal advertising provides information and legal access to the poor, who may otherwise lack the resources to find a qualified injury attorney. On the other hand, there are those that believe it’s degrading to the entire profession.
While the poor may tend to (incorrectly) believe attorney advertisers are superior to those who forego advertising, not all seem to share this sentiment.
Our attorneys straddle this line. There are some good personal injury law firms that advertise. But most of these law firms are settlement mills who operate on mass volume. In several of my blog posts about Detroit’s own billboard legal advertising, lawyer solicitation and unscrupulous television advertising, I’ve said these legal advertisers are a literal black eye to the profession, and that some of these advertisers are also tied to the explosion of small no fault lawsuits and medical provider lawsuits we now see in cities like Detroit where runners and sometimes even the lawyers themselves aggressively (and illegally) prey on auto accident victims when they’re most vulnerable.
The sentiment that legal advertising degrades the entire legal profession is not new. Attorneys have felt that way since the first lawyer commercials. An interesting article on this referred to a “deep seated” belief among lawyers that legal advertising is unprofessional and deceptive. This article reviews legal advertising following Bates v. State Bar of Arizona (the ruling that allowed attorney advertising in 1977)(Dyer, R. F., & Shimp, T. (1980). Reactions to Legal Advertising. Journal of Advertising Research, 20(2), 43-51.)
Help is easier today than ever before
The argument that television provides information and access to legal services to the poor was probably more true before every American began to carry around a cell phone/mobile computer in his or her pocket. Today everyone has a cellphone. And that means everyone can quickly do their own research to find the best injury lawyer to help them after a car accident. Here’s a blog post:
But do people actually do the research to find the best lawyers to help them?
Studies show that the sophistication of a person is one of the best determinants of how he or she selects an injury lawyer. For instance, a client who regularly turns to the internet to do research is more capable of making a proper evaluation of a lawyer’s credentials than one who is uninformed and responds to a billboard ad, as I discussed in my blog post last week.
At the epicenter of a meaningful review of any lawyer is that lawyer’s actual reviews and testimonials from helping real clients (not the fake reviews we see SEO people from India posting on far too many Metro Detroit personal injury lawyers Google pages today). Also important is that lawyer’s track record, since the past verdicts and settlements are specifically evaluated by insurance companies and a lawyer with a proven record can recover far more than a lawyer who doesn’t try cases. Finally, there is a huge problem with fake and “manufactured” reputations today – mostly because of so-called awards and honors that sound impressive but that any personal injury lawyer can buy and advertise for himself for a couple hundred dollars.
A 2008 study by a former attorney stated earned reputations are established by former clients, fellow attorneys and at times, third-party institutions that collect references. An example of a good third-party institution is Martindale Hubbell, which provides a national lawyer directory and rates lawyers on legal ability and ethics, based on an internal and peer-reviewed evaluation system. Avvo is another good third-party resource.
Conversely, manufactured legal reputations are just that — manufactured by what attorneys perpetuate about themselves and their services in legal advertising. (Zacharias, F. C. (2008). Effects of Reputation on the Legal Profession. Washington and Lee Law Review, 65(1), 173-212.)
When can legal advertising go too far?
It’s rare. Most challenges are ultimately unsuccessful because of an attorney’s first amendment rights. One 2005 Florida Supreme Court decision in The Florida Bar v. Pape provides a vivid example of possible restrictions on lawyer advertising to protect the public – as well as the legal reputation on behalf of the American bar. Two Florida personal injury attorneys, John Pape and Mark Chandler, adopted the image of a pit bull in many aspects of their advertising campaign, including on their letterhead, in their toll-free number (1-800-PIT-BULL), and website by the same name. The logo and phone number also appeared in their television commercials. For these actions, Pape and Chandler were disciplined by the Florida Supreme Court, which stated they violated rules, which in turn, demeaned lawyers and harmed the legal profession and the “public’s trust and confidence” in the Florida system of justice.
Other studies’ findings concur that irresponsible lawyer advertising is damaging to the entire legal profession. The American Bar Association Commission on Advertising observed that legal advertising (and lawyer solicitation) is viewed by the legal profession as a “major factor” contributing to the declining public image of the entire legal profession and for all lawyers.
Another study focused on the results of Gallup polls regarding the public’s ratings of honesty and ethics in legal advertisements. According to the study, the percentage of adults polled who rated the legal profession as either “high” or “very high” ranged from 25% in 1976, to a high over the study period of 27% in 1986, to a low of 16% in 1993. In addition, the study evaluated dollars spent on advertising over the same time period, finding that as perception dropped, advertising dollars rapidly increased. (Cebula, R. J. (1998, December). Historical and Economic Perspectives on Lawyer Advertising And Lawyer Image. Georgia State University Law Review, 15(2), 315-334.).
So what can we take from all of this? The best advice is always to do your own homework. Don’t choose your personal injury lawyer solely based on billboards or bus ads or commercials on TV. Research your lawyer, also refer to real testimonials from clients that lawyer has helped, as well as word of mouth from loved ones and professionals you trust, and third-party evaluations of attorneys. You can read over 500 real client testimonials from our own clients here.