Longform

Adding Insult to Injury

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Most of the complaints Henry receives concern attorneys accused of neglecting cases, being incompetent, failing to communicate with their clients or being dishonest--all ethical violations that can lead to disbarment, suspension or censure. Ads featuring miniskirts and car crashes fall into another category altogether.

"We do not attempt to discipline attorneys for unprofessional conduct," Henry explains. "It's impossible for us to draw the line as to what's unprofessional and what isn't, what offends people and what doesn't."

Attorneys have a hard time drawing that line, too. The current president of the CTLA is Larry Trattler, whom Kritzer describes as a "born-again nonadvertiser." A decade ago, Trattler was part of Sarney, Trattler & Waitkus, a high-profile personal-injury firm best known for its TV commercials depicting a courtroom scene in which attorneys and the judge chant "Mumbo jumbo, mumbo jumbo" in front of a bewildered client.

That was a long time ago, Trattler says, adding that today he doesn't feel comfortable discussing his personal views on advertising. Although the CTLA's executive committee has recommended that the task force proposal be sent on to the Supreme Court, Trattler insists the organization as a whole hasn't taken a position. "We just thought it should be forwarded to the Supreme Court so it could be debated fully," he says.

Stuart Kritzer watches Stuart Kritzer on a video monitor in his office. The commercials are low-key, warm-and-fuzzy spots, just Kritzer sitting in front of a roaring fire, talking about how, in a time of crisis, the average Joe needs an advocate in the legal system. Behind him is a framed photograph of rosy-cheeked children. Several of the segments seem impromptu and are, in fact, unscripted; Kritzer just lets the camera roll until he comes up with a thirty-second sound bite he likes.

After five or six commercials, Kritzer shuts off the VCR. "That's my house," he notes. "That's a photograph of my kids. That's me."

Since he doesn't use actors, testimonials or direct mail, Kritzer doesn't anticipate that the proposed rules would change his ads at all. Yet he's been the point man for the advertisers in the current battle, defending even the tackiest commercials of his competitors. What burns him the most about the anti-advertising crusade, he says, is the implication that lawyers who advertise must be "substandard in quality."

"The problem is they can't get around, for example, me," he says. "I have a Martindale-Hubbell AV superior rating. That's the highest rating an attorney can have, and I got that from my fellow lawyers. Conversely, there are lawyers that don't advertise who aren't very good. There are lawyers in large firms downtown who are drunks, who are drug addicts, who steal clients' money out of trust accounts. The surveys say that the public's opinion of lawyers is based on their personal contact; if you have a bad lawyer, you're not going to think much of lawyers."

Kritzer is big on surveys. He cites a two-year-old study conducted by the ABA's Commission on Advertising that surveyed people on their opinions about lawyers, showed them various kinds of commercials and then surveyed them again. The results suggested that advertising has virtually no effect on the public's overall opinion of lawyers; tasteful, stylish ads even leave a favorable impression of lawyers who advertise that way. Yet the CBA task force ignored those findings, Kritzer says, and declined to conduct its own research in Colorado--even after he suggested it could be done at no cost to the bar association.

"This is the only jurisdiction that I've heard about where they refused to do the homework other states did," Kritzer says.

Anderson says he has "a great deal of skepticism" about the ABA study, since it was based on one shopping mall "intercept" in a Chicago suburb and involved only a brief exposure to three commercials. "You see one ad one time; that's not like being bombarded by the same ad day in and day out," he notes.

Research aside, the CBA's Figa says that many lawyers just have a gut feeling that advertising is a big part of their image problems. "There is a sense that the image began going downhill in the minds of the public when advertising began," he says. "I don't know if there is a cause-effect relationship, but there is cynicism about lawyers playing on emotions of greed and revenge through advertising."

But David Vladeck, of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, says that argument won't hold up in court; public hostility toward lawyers is probably as old as the profession itself. "Look at history," he says. "You can't read Shakespeare without seeing contempt for lawyers. So much of what lawyers do breeds contempt for a good reason. Anybody who has to watch Alan Dershowitz on TV, justifying his role in the O.J. Simpson trial, would probably want to go out and shoot every lawyer."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast