Roberta M. Gubbins, Esq.
I Write Content--You Practice Law

Draft Three / blog

Now We Can Advertise

Lawyers and Seltzer 
New lawyers starting a law practice in the 1800 America could advertise their business. Using mass circulars, handbills, posters, ads in the local community papers, they let the citizens know of their existence. In 1908, however, the American Bar Association (ABA) published the Canons of Professional Ethics, which abolished advertising by lawyers.

The ABA believed that lawyer advertising was unprofessional and cast a negative light on the profession. There was also the concern of encouraging frivolous cases and clogging the courts. According to the Chicago Bar Association, “The most worthy and
effective advertisement possible…is the establishment of a well-merited reputation for professional capacity and fidelity to trust.”

Lawyers were, however, allowed to be listed in legal directories, like the SBM Member Directory, and could also print business cards and use professional letterhead. They were back to the days of face-to-face networking, building their relationships with clients one person at a time.

Bates v State Bar of Arizona

That is how things stood until 1974, when John Bates and Van O’Steen founded their practice in Arizona. They decided to focus on a large number of small cases such as uncontested divorces, adoptions or simple bankruptcy to support their practice. To get the word out, they placed an ad in the Arizona Republic on February 22, 1976.

The State Bar of Arizona suspended Bates and O’Steen for six months. The lawyers challenged the decision and eventually the matter was heard by the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled in their favor. The Supreme Court removed the ban on advertising stating that it “inhibited the free flow of information and kept the public in ignorance.”

The Court, however, did allow the State Bars to “regulate” advertising to make sure the information offered was true and didn’t mislead consumers.

The day after the Supreme Court decision in 1977, Group Matrix, an advertising agency, obtained their first legal client. In those years, they advertised for personal injury lawyers on television, radio, outdoor advertising on billboards, benches, taxis, buses and yellow pages. Over time, the yellow pages have faded away and the agency added a web service. 

How do lawyers advertise in 2016?

In many ways, advertising of legal services follows the same path it followed in the early years. We still advertise on TV, radio, billboards, taxis, buses and benches. What has changed is the addition of the Internet which gives lawyers another way to gain name recognition, impart information to prospective clients and establish their brand by creating websites and writing blog posts.

And, we are subject to the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct on advertising, which are in the section titled “Information About Legal Services.” One of the rules requires “A copy or recording of an advertisement or communication shall be kept for two years after its last dissemination along with a record of when and where it was used.” {Rule: 7.2 (b)} That rule includes material on your website. Remember to give it a read.