An article by Vickie J. Gray on the Opinion * Commentary page Thursday incorrectly identified her as the president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Law Firm Merchandising Association. In fact, she is immediate past president.
The Sun regrets the errors.
One of the more disturbing elements of the recent Nathaniel Hurt trial is that the defendant hired a lawyer who had not tried a murder case in 10 years. That lawyer, Stephen L. Miles, allowed Hurt to reject a plea bargain that would have spared him jail time for fatally shooting a boy; he then was convicted and sentenced to prison.
We are not privy to the reasons Nathaniel Hurt retained Mr. Miles. Perhaps he felt, after seeing Mr. Miles' expertly produced advertisements over and over again, that he was hiring the best lawyer in town. I guess it didn't occur to him to ask how many murder trials the attorney handled in the last year (much less the last decade). Perhaps he did ask, and was assured by Mr. Miles that it didn't matter, that his skills and instincts were just as sharp as a lawyer who's in court every day.
The point is, very few people do know what questions to ask, and what the right answer should be. Therein lies the true problem with lawyer advertising.
Working and middle-class citizens are not educated purchasers of legal services. They do not know what factors to consider or what questions to ask to determine if a lawyer is best suited to handle their legal needs. This lack of education may not be significant when selecting a lawyer for routine legal matters. It can be devasting when your freedom is at stake, your livelihood is threatened or your family has suffered a grievous injury. Calling the law office of Stephen L. Miles for a free initial consultation is a natural enough impulse, considering the thrust of his advertising campaign. Hiring him to represent you in a murder trial, though, is a little like asking Jack Luskin ("the cheapest guy in town") to come fix your refrigerator.
The initial goal of lawyer advertising was to provide the average citizen with easier access to the legal system. Lawyers now use the same techniques to promote their services as auto dealers, fast-food restaurants and athletic-shoe manufacturers. The average person probably spends more time comparing the relative merits of different brands of tennis shoes than researching qualifications of the professional who will handle some of the most important transactions in that person's life.
So, what's the solution? With over 25,000 lawyers admitted to practice in Maryland alone, it appears that lawyer advertising is here to stay.
The organized bar needs to spend less time trying to restrict advertising activities, and more time "educating the public about the legal system, legal services and their role in meeting individual solutions. The bar needs to explore ways in which advertising can contribute toward meeting that need." ("Lawyer Advertising at the Crossroads," a report on the 1994 open hearings on lawyer advertising, solicitation and law-firm marketing, published by the American Bar Association Commission on Advertising, 1995.) Perhaps someone should publish a Consumer Reports for the legal industry.
It's also time to stop lawyer bashing. Only a handful of firms spend megabucks buying mass media air time to advertise their services. Thousands of other lawyers have neither the means nor the desire to promote their services this way. Yet they offer representation equal to or better than the big advertisers.
Consumers need to demand that lawyer advertisers provide information they can use to make an informed decision, rather than using jingles, preferred-customer cards or discount prices.
We owe it to ourselves to be relentless and thorough when seeking competent legal counsel. There are no refunds, warranties or money-back guarantees when your lawyer screws
up. Just ask Nathaniel Hurt.
Vickie J. Gray is president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Law Firm Marketing Association.