Changing attitudes towards lawyer advertising might have less to do with public opinion and more to do with lawsuits and first amendment rights. From the beginning, the American Bar Association Canon of Professional Ethics has viewed of lawyer advertising as “unprofessional.” Only in 1937 did the guidelines loosen enough to allow lawyers to publish listings in legal directories and other publications in the legal community.
Restrictions on lawyer advertising have continued to loosen over the last few decades with changes in the professional conduct rules. By the 1980s the rules permitted advertising in most advertising media including billboards, but content had to be limited to lists of services, basis of fees and payment, second language abilities, and contact information.
Limitations on lawyers’ ability to advertise have seen regular challenges in court. In 2013, a Florida Supreme Court ruling loosened the ABA regulations to balance lawyers’ first amendment rights of free speech with the Bar Association’s concerns for protecting legal consumers and maintaining public trust in the judicial system. The issue of legal advertising seems to hinge on that balance of lawyers’ free speech against the damage law firm advertising appears to do to public confidence in the judicial system.
Public attitudes toward the legal profession and legal advertising have been pretty consistent over the last few years. Most recent studies suggest that the public accepts legal advertising, but strongly distrust it and wants to see it regulated. A large scale survey of public attitudes conducted in 2011 by the University of Florida Survey Research Center found that a majority of the public (nearly 70%) believed the content of legal advertising should be regulated. This is in contrast to advertising in other professions. Lawyers were singled out as the profession for which the public most wants to see advertising regulated. Only 29% of the public wants to see unregulated legal advertising, compared with 52% of accountants, and close to 40% of doctors, bankers and real estate agents.
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