Proposed rule changes before the Tennessee Supreme Court would restrict lawyer advertising in a baffling array of ways. Among the restrictions in the proposed rules are a ban on "any background sound other than instrumental music," a list of permissible illustrations for ads, including "a photograph of the attorney or group of attorneys in a law firm against a plain, single-colored background or unadorned set of law books" and a comment suggesting that "having space aliens or talking dogs assisting clients in an advertisement" would be a rule violation.
Most people who need to use the legal system don't know where to go for legal help. Unfortunately, there are portions of the bar that still believe that the best way to find a good lawyer is to ask your friends at the country club for a recommendation. For the rest of us, advertising is a way to get information about service providers. When a group of lawyers claims, as the Tennessee Association for Justice does in proposing these rules, that certain advertising could lead to "a decrease in the public perception of lawyers, and misleading of the public," we are suspicious that they are more concerned with the former than the latter.
We're not sure what harm would come to consumers if an advertisement featured law books that were festively decorated, or if a television commercial for a law firm depicted a lawyer as a cartoon dog, with a chorus in the background. We're confident that, while most Tennesseans, like the rest of the country, are unable to afford a lawyer, they are not stupid. They also have seen thousands of hours of television advertising in their lifetimes. Unlike Will Ferrell's character in Elf, they are not going to interpret an advertisement for "World's Best Coffee" literally, let alone an advertisement featuring a talking-dog lawyer.
If the folks at the Tennessee Association for Justice want to help consumers, they wouldn't waste their time restricting the flow of information to consumers. Instead, they should push for a more user-friendly legal system, where people can more easily represent themselves, or where more affordable legal help is available through allowing more non-lawyer assistance. If they are concerned about the image of the profession, they should worry less about how advertising makes the profession look. Instead, they could focus on the state's lawyer discipline system, where, as in the rest of the country, less than 5% of formal client complaints result in public sanctions against a lawyer.
Our testimony to the Tennessee Supreme Court, filled with more musings on the impact of talking dogs and non-instrumental music on the unsuspecting citizenry of Tennessee, can be found here.