Reasonable Doubt: Over-the-top lawyer ads perpetuate myths

Lawyer ads are everywhere but how far is too far? Kevin Yee looks at how lawyers are portrayed and perceived in advertising.

I must confess: I get a kick out of lawyer ads. It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure.

Some ads send the message that the lawyer cares about the client but they can fall short. They have bad actors and hammed up sentiments. Those are tacky and tacky is just fine with me. My favourites are those that paint the lawyer as a warrior who will fight for you. They introduce the biggest and baddest (and loudest) barrister! And just like a blockbuster action movie, I know these overly dramatic ads are ridiculous. Still, I don’t deny that I enjoy catching them. And based on the numerous discussions I’ve had with colleagues, I’m not alone!

The more over the top they are, the better. And of course, the ads in the U.S. are one notch above ours. It’s hard to put to words what I think of when I see them. I am fascinated with someone boldly putting themselves out there. I am dying to know how well the ads work in getting clients in the door. Mostly, I’m torn between cringing and chuckling. I cringe at the apparent caricature of a lawyer persona. But I chuckle because these lawyers seem to be able to laugh at themselves and not take themselves too seriously. Immortalizing the Sal Goodmans, Lionel Hutzes, and Barry Zuckercorns in pop culture is one thing. It’s another matter when it’s real life practicing lawyers portraying themselves in the media.

I have friends and family who remember watching The Simpsons in the 1990s and being treated to ads of Jim “The Hammer” Shapiro. The nickname says it all for the New York lawyer. Earlier this year, a Georgia lawyer bought a time slot during the Super Bowl and aired the mother of all lawyer ads. Walls of fire, sledge hammer, religious imagery, dramatic storyline of corruption and intrigue—you name it.

In British Columbia, we don’t have ads of lawyers brandishing nicknames and resorting to military jargon. So what’s stopping a lawyer in B.C. from going on TV with a Viking helmet on, katana in one hand, and two alligators on a chain leash in the other? That might be a recipe for a viral video but I suspect the Law Society of B.C. would take issue with it. They certainly don’t help the public image of the legal profession.

Lawyers are bound by the Code of Professional Conduct. Lawyers are prohibited from marketing anything that is false, inaccurate, unverifiable, misleading, or contrary to the best in interest of the public. On a broader level, this also means maintaining the integrity and reputation of the profession. The Law Society could be concerned that an ad hurts public confidence in the legal services.

Thinking about these types of ads begs some bigger questions. Do they show what clients want in their lawyer? Is there a belief that a lawyer is someone you hire to be a “warrior”? That the lawyer’s role is to exact punishment on the other side and stop at nothing for their client?

If this is the perception of the lawyer’s role, then it is a myth. Negotiations, discussions, and even disagreements aren’t generally so fiery. In my experiences, the chest thumping and hollering promised in ads don’t get the best results. Those tactics just get tuned out by the opposing side or, even worse, by a judge. The vast majority of lawyers believe that effective and persuasive advocacy for a client is best done when both sides are cordial. There is a folksy saying about catching more flies with honey than vinegar that comes to mind.

Lawyers are a common subject for movies and TV. It’s not surprising that these portrayals are sensational and exaggerated. Perhaps what’s surprising is that the most extreme cases of lawyer portrayals are those that come from the lawyers themselves!

A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.