Advertising for lawyers: Are there ethical standards?

Advertising for lawyers: Are there ethical standards?

Advertising is a never-ending guess about what works and what will attract potential clients. A key to successful advertising is to be bold, disruptive and unique. But sometimes, this goes too far.

Head-on auto collision. (Image via Wikipedia entry on auto accidents, GNU 1.2 free usage license)

WASHINGTON, September 4, 2016 — Some of the television ads run by attorneys and law firms are awesomely bad. Some are merely weird, while others border on the insane. Typically, however, the most outrageous of these ads are run to promote personal injury attorneys and their firms. In many parts of this country, beating the bushes for personal injury clients has literally become a dog-eat-dog competition in which personal injury lawyers run aggressive ads that push the boundaries of the legal profession in many ways.

Spend a weekday morning watching television, particularly those popular “judge” shows (Judge Judy, The People’s Court, Judge Mathis, Judge Alex, Divorce Court and others) and you will see a bevy of lawyer ads that run the gamut from good and tasteful to horrible and offensive.

Advertising is a good thing, and it’s a given that the public needs to have access to legal services. Despite our current, almost hyper-connected electronic world, real, useful information is surprisingly scarce in numerous arenas, and ads on TV often make up for that information gap. But while we can mostly agree on the objective, we don’t always agree on the means some employ to get there.

Advertising is actually a never-ending guess about what works and what will attract potential clients and customers. Because of this, the generally accepted approach for successful advertising is to be bold, disruptive and unique. The more an ad can surprise you, the more it takes you out of your “automatic pilot:  ignore” zone of consciousness, the more it will result in inquiries and new clients.

To the surprise of many non-lawyers who view all those televised attorneys’ ads, there are actually ethical standards for them, and these standards are routinely upheld.

When outrageous legal ads are believed to cross the ethical line, the allegedly offending firm’s competitors are not slow to complain to authorities, and ads are promptly investigated. The states themselves monitor legal ads and act to get them off the air if they violate rules.

In 2005, for example, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that attorneys could not run ads that conjure up images of viciousness, and thus ruled that an ad featuring a pit bull was not allowed, noting that had the court approved it “images of sharks, wolves, crocodiles and piranhas could follow.”

In 2010, New York’s Supreme Court barred a number of ad concepts, including testimonials from clients relating to pending matters, portrayals of judges or fictitious law firms, attention-getting techniques relating to attorney competence and trade names that imply an ability to get the desired results.

Some attorney ads can give the entire legal profession a negative image. The commonly used term “ambulance chaser” is a prime example of the negative publicity this kind of commercial can bring.

This unfortunately popular term has been around for a long time, and its roots lie in the early ads and commercials that promoted and hyped certain personal injury attorneys and firms. Bar associations and lawyers themselves fully understand the perception caused by these ads. Enter today’s ethical advertising rules. Legal ads cannot be false or misleading.

The so-called ambulance chaser, as the myth goes, is a lawyer who’s trying to secure a client for a personal injury case even when that potential client doesn’t have a case or would be unlikely to make a claim. In other words, the potential benefit of the proposed personal injury case is not for the client. It’s for the lawyer who’s chasing him down. Very few lawyers do this, however, for two key reasons.

First, attorneys, like everyone else, value their time. If it’s clear there is no case, taking such a non-case on ends up being an extreme waste of time. That’s because in these personal injury cases, the lawyer does not get paid until funds are recovered for the client. The lawyer’s fees are termed “contingent,” and the contingency is the recovery of money for the client. Second, attorneys are prohibited from bringing frivolous claims. They can be subjected to financial sanctions for doing so.

By its very definition and implication, the notion of “ambulance chasing” also creates a very real and vivid image in the public imagination. Suffice it to say, lawyers are not allowed to chase ambulances. In fact, ethical rules prohibit such behavior.

An attorney may not solicit or “directly contact” a potential injured client. The client must contact the attorney first. This rule is aimed at direct, personal contact, however, not general ads run in public media outlets. The reason behind this is the belief that an attorney possesses an inappropriate advantage over someone who is injured. The injured party is concerned about and perhaps overwhelmed by numerous issues stemming from the injury, and is perhaps emotionally more susceptible to the private importuning of a trained legal advocate than might otherwise be the case.

That’s why both federal rules and state laws prohibit attorneys from making in-person, live telephone or real-time electronic contact to solicit professional employment when a significant motive for so doing is the lawyer’s financial gain.

The ethical standards of advertising differ from state to state, but all have common themes. Ads cannot be false or misleading in any way, even subtly. An attorney, therefore, cannot advertise that he or she is “the best” or “the only,” Most importantly of all, an attorney cannot guarantee results.

Some lawyer ads, nonetheless, do push the boundaries of ethics, and certainly, taste.

New York attorney James Alexander ran a TV spot for his firm showing lawyers offering their services to space aliens who had crashed their UFO. Unhappy New York court officials said the ad contained “patent falsities.” The prosecuting attorney for New York wrote in a court filing “it cannot be denied that there is little likelihood that the lawyers were retained by aliens.”

Numerous attorneys around the country assign themselves names, nicknames and the like that summon images suggestive of super powers. Use of the label “The Hammer” has been seen in many ads across the country. Many attorneys’ ads promise “big cash rewards” and others “get what you deserve,” mostly all of which follow with small print at the end detailing that all cases are different and no guarantees are being made.

Attorney Jim Adler, regarded as a legend in Texas, calls himself “The Hammer” and is seen on ads yelling and shaking his fist and using phrases that some say are hard to get out of your head. Like the ad for The Texas Hammer.

New York Attorney Jim “The Hammer” Shapiro tells you he is your last resort, and that, although he cannot rip the hearts out of those that hurt you, he will take the cases other lawyers won’t and he’ll hunt down those responsible until he gets you every last penny, as in an ad for Jim “The Hammer” Shapiro.

Shapiro himself got hammered in 2002 when the New York Supreme Court revoked his license to practice law for a year following a malpractice jury verdict against him that included findings that his ads were false and misleading.

A group called Criminal Justice (CJ) says that Dallas attorney Bruce Flint’s rap style ads look like a crappy version of Grand Theft Auto. (Bruce Flint rap ad.)

CJ and many others regard Baltimore, Maryland Attorney Barry Glazer’s ads as highly offensive. Glazer’s ads call on all urination victims to call him, so the flow generated by the insurance companies will stop. He tells viewers he will stop the insurance companies form “urinating on your leg and tell you it’s raining.” Glazer’s website features a “Don’t Pee on Me” tab.

Good Super Bowl ads can touch our emotions and make us laugh and cry, while helping brand the advertiser’s products or services. Lawyer’s ads attempt the same. They don’t always succeed.

Looking for a lawyer? Checking out an ad may not be the worst way to start the process.


Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980.  He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website

His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website:

Samakow has now also started a small business consulting firm. His new book “Step By Step, Achieve Small Business Success” is available at

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