You can put lipstick on a pig,
but it’s still a pig.
The ads are everywhere. You’ve seen them on television, heard them on the radio, noticed the billboards while driving, and all over social media. Personal injury lawyer advertising is ubiquitous; inundating us with messages boasting about wins, money recovered, and awards for being the best. But when does harmless puffery turn into harmful misrepresentation?
According to Nevada Rules of Professional Responsibility, Rule 7.1., “A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.”
This means an attorney who boasts of their trial experience or wins, who has never been to trial, has violated Nevada’s ethics rules. As a practicing lawyer for over 40 years, I know the lawyers and firms who don’t go to trial or aren’t successful when they do. But the public is in no position to know, and these firms bank on slick advertising to gloss over their lack of experience. One particular Las Vegas lawyer is a case in point. His celebrity sprinkled expensive play acting ads depict him in the courtroom showing up for trial, in trial and winning at trial. He somehow pulled off the Best of Las Vegas award for Best Trial Lawyer. The problem is, he’s never been to trial, much less won a trial.
In 1987, the Arizona State Bar brought disciplinary proceedings against Stephen M. Zang and Peter Whitmer. The two formed a law firm and ran newspaper and television ads depicting themselves as trial attorneys. The ads used scenes from car accidents and hospitals and showed the attorneys in courtroom scenarios.
The ads portrayed them as capable trial attorneys who tried cases—but they did not, in fact, try cases. The Arizona Supreme Court found that an ad depicting a lawyer trying cases obviously conveys the message that the lawyer tries cases. Ads that falsely suggest a lawyer is capable of trying cases pose a danger to anyone who actually needs a case litigated and hires them. Because the ethical rules are designed to protect consumers and deter future misconduct, disciplining the lawyers was appropriate and attorneys Zang and Whitmer were suspended from the practice of law. Although this case is over 30-years old, it is still the leading case of misleading advertising taught in Professional Ethics courses in law school.
Similarly, the danger of misleading advertising was illustrated in 1992 in a California case. Samuel E. Spital, a San Diego personal injury attorney widely known for his extensive use of television advertising, agreed to pay $1.8 million to settle a malpractice claim alleging his firm botched a product liability lawsuit. The theory of the client’s civil lawsuit was fraud and misrepresentation in the advertisements that drew the client into Spital’s office. Spital’s advertisements were alleged to be false, deceptive, and misleading to the public by misrepresenting the lawyer’s litigation experience.
The choice of hiring a lawyer is an important decision that should not be based solely on advertisements, especially ads falsely misrepresenting a lawyer’s experience. For more than 40 years, the Richard Harris Law Firm has successfully represented tens of thousands of accident victims and the families of loved ones lost. We have handled hundreds of trials, over 250 7- and 8-figure verdicts, awards, and settlements recovering over $1.5 billion for our clients.
No play acting necessary.