I personally find most of the lawyer advertising on television distasteful, insulting, and just plain annoying. I doubt this is a question you get asked too much, but are there any limits to such advertising by lawyers?
Although I am rarely asked this exact question, I have heard numerous people complain about offensive lawyer advertisements on television. Believe it or not, many lawyers likewise feel that these advertisements undermine the integrity of the profession.
In short answer to your question, a host of parameters actually do help to define and regulate lawyer advertising. Only a cursory overview of these considerations is possible in the confines of this article.
Historically, from 1908 until the late 1970s, professional ethics rules completely banned lawyer advertising and solicitation. In the 1960s and 1970s, public interest groups, lawyers, and academics began to question the validity and rationale for this strict ban and argued that lawyer advertising may serve beneficial purposes such as providing the public with easy access to information on prices and services.
This culminated in a 1977 United States Supreme Court opinion that recognized lawyer advertising as commercial speech protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments and paved the way for lawyer advertising. The Court asserted, however, that while a flat out ban on advertising is problematic, states could still regulate false and misleading advertisements.
In Kansas, ethical rules generally prevent direct, in person solicitation of cases by attorneys. Many people think of this as “ambulance chasing.” Exceptions do exist to this rule such as if the prospective client is a family member, close friend, or previous client.
Although not generally banned like in person contact, a host of rules further govern direct mailings to targeted prospective clients. An example would be where an attorney sends a letter a requisite amount of time after an accident to contact a victim concerning representation. Rules exist concerning the nature of the communication and the envelope must be marked as “advertising material.”
Ethical rules are further being rewritten or clarified to incorporate mediums of communication made possible by the digital age.
Distinct from these attempts to directly solicit clients is broad lawyer advertising not targeting any known prospective clients. Since this broad lawyer advertising really is the basis of your question, I will spend more time discussing this form of generating clients.
As indicated, lawyer advertising that is untruthful or misleading is prohibited. It is usually easy to recognize statements that are blatantly false.
Consequently, most ethical opinions dealing with lawyer advertising struggle with the question of what constitutes misleading advertisements. This can fall into many types of categories.
A true representation that omits important material facts is one example of problematic advertising. For example, an attorney cannot indicate attendance at Harvard Law School if in fact that attorney only attended a week-long training course at Harvard.
A lawyer also cannot create unjustified expectations. A prime example would be where a lawyer boasts winning million-dollar verdicts in the last couple of cases that the lawyer took to trial without indicating that this is not a guaranteed or predictable result.
Misleading advertising can also result where an advertisement makes unsubstantiated comparisons – i.e. a lawyer asserts that he is the most knowledgeable social security attorney in the state of Kansas.
Other more specific rules further govern lawyer advertising. For example, subject to narrow circumstances, a lawyer cannot hold herself out to be a “specialist” or “expert” in a particular area. A lawyer can, however, generally specify her areas of practice on an advertisement.
A lawyer that disregards or violates the restrictions to lawyer advertising outlined above may be subject to multiple sanctions such as a public censure, suspension or even disbarment.
Thus, in answer to your question, rules do exist to regulate lawyer advertising. Unfortunately, some attorneys test the limits of these rules or disregard them. Moreover, as you point out, even absent a violation of official “ethical” rules governing lawyers, many television commercials involving attorneys are deemed offensive and can further undermine public trust in the legal profession.