The National Law Journal
Lawyers Try New Soft Sell
They try slick ads to spruce up their image.
BY GAIL DIANE COX
National Law Journal Staff Reporter
THERE'S PROBABLY no way to sell the idea that lawyers are nice people, plaintiffs' attorney Steven Kazan admits.
But Mr. Kazan and fellow governors of the California Trial Lawyers Association are banking that advertising wizardry can produce television public service spots that make viewers feel more kindly toward those who put the spots on the air. And if a high-visibility good deed or two makes lawyers more respectable, that's enough for Mr. Kazan of Oakland's Kazan & McClain: "If we can get a little respect out of it, cuddly we can do without. Cuddly we can get at home."
Earlier this year, CTLA and the Police Officers Association of California co-sponsored three low-budget public service spots on the themes of drunken driving and locking up one's home. Now the trial lawyers are about to go Madison Avenue in a big way.
Tom O'Sullivan and Jim Weller of the Los Angeles public relations firm Kollewe & O'Sullivan are putting together glossy TV spots for CTLA that extol the American Legal system while walking a tightrope between public education and self-promotion. Mr. Weller's credits include the Reagan and Bush presidential campaigns, and he and Mr. O'Sullivan teamed up for the wildly successful promotion of the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Last month, the state trial lawyers started screening O'Sullivan's rough cuts for local bar groups. CTLA's 1989 president, Harvey Levine, says that with the anticipated grass-roots funding the spots can be on the air by February.
Elsewhere in California -- as well as in Georgia, Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Texas, Indiana and Louisiana -- similar campaigns are under way with the backing of organized bars or established law firms. While styles vary, including in some instances spots attacking lawyers who advertise for business, everyone is calling their promos for the profession a defensive tactic.
"We've seen a lot of feeble attempts to combat about 10 years of the insurance industry pouring millions into ads convincing the public that higher rates and all sorts of social ills are the fault of lawyers," says Steven Pingel of L.A.'s Lemaire & Faunce. "It's about time we have some institutionalized advertising designed to meet it head-on."
Perhaps the most high-minded of the spots are a pair produced by the State Bar of Georgia. Distributed to television stations statewide in March 1988, the spots are still earning free air time as public service announcements.
One is the MTV-style production number in which a youth repeatedly slams his head into a wall while a voice ticks off the legal consequences of drunken driving. The other features a beer- stocked refrigerator, with partying teenagers helping themselves until one slams a car into the kitchen and a voice tells parents: "Serve alcohol to a minor and you could end up serving time." Both spots won awards: "The Wall" at the 18th annual Creativity Awards by Art Direction Magazine; "The Fridge," at the International Film and Television Festival of New York.
The two are still a source of pride for the Georgia bar association, but beyond that, it's unclear what lawyers got for their $ 40,000. "One drawback to public service announcements is there's no gauge for what they accomplished," says the group's information director, Kitty Burgess.
By contrast, adman Joseph Perkins Jr. says market research tells him for certain that he can change minds with his street-fighter approach to TV spots. Already shown in three states, his spots offer advice on choosing an attorney by warning against practitioners who advertise their services on TV. In the process, they inform viewers there is another breed of lawyer, too classy to engage in such solicitation -- the one paying for the message.
"Hi, I'm Dr. Claude Cutter," says one spot's burlesque surgeon, looking up into the camera mid- slice to suggest that viewers contact him at "555-CUTS." The tag-line in a test run in the Mobile, Ala., market was: "Remember, the attorney you are looking for isn't on television." For the Tucson, Ariz., market, the message became: "Don't select your attorney during a station break."
Such spots are too hot for a state bar to sponsor, and probably too expensive anyway. So far backers have paid for air time rather than counting on stations' donating public service time. Viewers are told the spots are put on by Attorneys for Consumer Education, or ACE.
The executive director of ACE and the creator of the anti-ads is Mr. Perkins, a Tuscaloosa, Ala.- based public relations consultant who heads the advertising firm of Perkins & Associates. He says ACE started with a collaboration between him and the Mobile law firm of Cunningham, Bounds, Younce, Crowder & Brown. They shared a concern, he says, that hustling TV attorneys are playing into the hands of the insurance industry in its campaign to alienate the public from the legal profession and pass tort reform limiting damage recovery.
Mr. Perkins says surveys taken before and after his spots ran showed that viewers who had "thought all lawyers were pretty much low-class folks" learned to distinguish advertisers from non- advertisers and to have more respect for the latter.
According to the consultant, Cunningham Bounds initially paid all ACE's bills, but sent out some 1,000 letters to law firms around the nation seeking confederates. Mr. Perkins declines to say how much the spots cost.
They found like minds in the Tucson, Ariz., law firm of Haralson, Kinerk & Morey. Dale Haralson says he felt a duty to do something after seeing studies that showed sleazy TV ads not only injured the profession's image but also may make jurors give lower awards to defendants represented by attorneys jurors have seen on television.
Mr. Haralson organized a fund-raiser for ACE this fall. Although Haralson Kinerk alone paid for the initial run of Dr. Claude Cutter on Tucson's station KVOA, Mr. Haralson says "phase two," starting this month with possible expansion into the Phoenix market, has the support of several firms. he declines to name them or to discuss costs.
At least one well-known Arizona lawyer, Van O'Steen of Van O'Steen & Partners, denounces ACE's anonymity, calling it a phony front group.
Twelve years ago, Mr. O'Steen and then-partner John Bates rewrote federal law when they challenged the ban on lawyer advertising by running commercials for their legal clinic, which offered routing services to low- and medium-income clients. v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350 (1977).
Mr. O'Steen tried last June to get the state bar association to end Dr. Claude Cutter's Arizona run. The message that all advertising lawyers are sleazy and inferior is inaccurate, he complained, and the absence of Haralson Kinerk's name on the anti-ads violated state law. The state bar declined to intervene, telling Mr. O'Steen that the spots were not entrepreneurial and were covered by the First Amendment.
Mr. O'Steen maintains ACE spots wouldn't engage in lawyer-bashing themselves if they were sincere about winning respect for the profession, and that the surveys Mr. Perkins cites to the contrary are too self-serving to be trusted. Lawyers from large, traditional firms have never liked advertising because they "have always gotten clients through a network of referrals, from doctors to tow truck operators," he says. "The last thing they want is people making their own choices . . . This isn't image, it's pocketbook."
Mr. Haralson replies that Mr. O'Steen is welcome to his own opinions, but such as analysis isn't worth a response. But the man who introduced Dr. Claude Cutter to Indiana TV viewers, however, does admit that competition for business had something to do with it. "Of course we want to inform the public about a good way to select a lawyer," says W. Scott Montross of Indianapolis's Townsend, Hovde & Montross. "But it would be hypocritical to say that's all . . . A lot of lawyers ads embarrass me, and beyond that, yes advertising lawyers are cutting into our business."
With support from other firms "likewise fed up." Mr. Montross says he formed a group called Lawyers for Consumer Education, bought one of the Alabama anti-ads and purchased several weeks of air time on five TV stations. The spots got few showings, he says, before they were yanked without explanation. Mr. Montross blames pressure for advertisers, and says he is considering filing an antitrust action against the stations.
Such divisiveness is an anathema to the state bar associations' advertising efforts. The biggest debate among Georgia bar association leaders in making "The Wall" and "The Fridge," says information director Ms. Burgess, was whether to choose a malady, drunken driving, that some though had been overexposed.
There was no debate about the need to include TV spots in the California State Bar's new consumer education project, says spokeswoman Anne Charles. The first step will be small: $ 12,000 to retool Georgia's spots for broadcast around Christmas. Ms. Charles says State Bar President Alan Rothenburg will unveil them at a press conference "as a holiday gift to the people of California from the lawyers of California."
Next year, the stat bar plans to go on to make its own generic public service spots -- both for their redeeming social value and in the hope, says bar governor Robert H. Oliver of Fresno, Calif., "it sends a message that lawyers care."
If the spots follow the Georgia mold, they will have more substance than the three rough-cut spots the California Trial Lawyers Association is showing to local groups. The CTLA spots were designed to be "highly emotional" and "image-based," says the consultant who created them, Tom O'Sullivan.
Two CTLA spots have a patriotic theme carried out in gauzy, amber-tinged montages. One shows cowboys, school children and construction workers, goes on to praise America's diversity and ends with "California Trial Lawyers Association" bannered across the Statute of Liberty. The other discusses the importance of the jury system in product safety. Both use music and the slogan, "Without justice, there is no freedom; without the legal system, there is no justice."
When it comes to balancing emotion and substance, Mr. O'Sullivan acknowledges the third spot "might be over the line." It profiles a grandfatherly lawyer who has been doing good deeds in his small town since he and his wife moved there after World War II. Mr. O'Sullivan says the profile is of the "typical lawyer," even though time and money restrictions forced him to use an actor.
When the three spots were shown in November to CTLA members in San Francisco, however, any skepticism about what advertising can or can't do for the legal profession was drowned out by cheering.
"When people are wiping tears out of their eyes," observes Mr. Pingel of the governing board, "you don't hear much debate."