The Cool Justice Report
June 6, 2007
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
What do buses, cab rooftop displays, celebrity TV spokesmen, and the ubiquitous Yellow Pages all have in common? They have become the principle means by which many in this state select lawyers to handle the legal crises in their lives. Then there are the fliers in newspapers, 1-800 lawyer phone numbers, and the internet.
The rules on lawyer advertising changed dramatically several decades ago. The law had always been viewed as a noble profession and the concept of advertising was considered undignified ambulance chasing. In 1977 the United States Supreme Court ruled that certain lawyer advertising was constitutionally protected commercial speech. The deluge followed. Advertising budgets became a major line item in most law firm budgets.
The Statewide Grievance Committee (SGC) is charged with the responsibility to police the conduct of lawyers. Most lawyer discipline arises from complaints filed with the Committee. Each month our bar publication Connecticut Lawyer, publishes, in obituary fashion, its discipline digest, listing the names and punishment of lawyers sanctioned by the Committee. The most egregious offenses are reserved for the Court to investigate. There, lawyers are presented for possible disbarment. Sadly, with more frequency, the disciplinary digest lists repeated violations by a single lawyer now leading to presentment.
Defalcations in handling the money of others is a major cause of grievance complaints. Random audits of attorney trust accounts are now conducted. Trust, after all is what we, as a profession, should be all about.
The rules on advertising were adopted by the Rules Committee of the Superior Court. They provide:
A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer's services. A communication is false or misleading if it:
(1) contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading;
(2) is likely to create an unjustified expectation about results the lawyer can achieve, or states or implies that the lawyer can achieve results by means that violate the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law; or
(3) compares the lawyer's services with other lawyer's services, unless the comparison can be factually substantiated.
No longer do reputation and ability stand alone as the hallmarks of good lawyering. Mass marketing accounts for far more choices when a lawyer is needed. Somehow people have come to believe that the back cover of a marketing phone book is a better determinant of legal ability than traditional word of mouth recommendations. The competition among major advertisers has lead to bigger, bolder pronouncements of legal prowess.
"Enough!" say the rule making judges. Beginning this July the SGC will commence random audits of attorney ads. Lawyers employing the courts' electronic filing system will be required to submit copies of or links to, their firm's advertising. Finally, the puffery and inflated claims of some will be called into question.
There are services that judge the quality of lawyers, such as Martindale Hubbell. Its lawyer ratings derive, not from the size of a phone book ad, but from the opinions of colleagues in that state. The National Board of Trial Advocacy (NBTA) offers specialty certification in the fields of criminal and civil trial work, matrimonial and social security disability law (www.nbtanet.org). The NBTA was founded by the late legendary Bridgeport attorney, Theodore Koskoff. Lawyers are certified through a rigorous process of peer review, a substantial experience threshold and written examination. Only lawyers who have passed such scrutiny are permitted, ethically, to advertise themselves as specialists.
The scrutiny of lawyer ads that will result from the new rule are an important step in guiding consumers to the true experts. Connecticut needs to join the many other states that now require mandatory continuing legal education and specialty certification. This, and not the strength of the advertising dollar should be the gauge of a lawyer's ability.
Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organizations Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, American Academy of Trial Counsel. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Website, www.meehanlaw.com