Although Ken Shigley is a practicing attorney in Atlanta and isn’t a Memphis personal injury or accident lawyer I wanted to share his latest blog post with all of my readers. Ken has written an exceptional post concerning “billboard” and “tv lawyers”. Even though he is writing about Atlanta, the same thing rings true here in Memphis, Tennessee and Northern Mississppi.
As a serious personal injury attorney in Atlanta, Georgia, I am frankly embarrassed by the inundation of billboards and TV ads for personal injury lawyers who have little respect within the profession and seldom if ever set foot in a courtroom.
If you or a loved one has a serious injury or wrongful death case, you would do better throwing a dart at the attorneys section of the phone book than choosing a lawyer on the basis of a billboard or a 30 second TV ad. At least you would have a chance of getting to a decent, honest attorney who would know how to identify a specialist for an appropriate referral, rather than a “mill” that focuses on volume and accepts low offers rather than doing the hard work of litigation.
The subtly misleading slogans of the billboard and TV lawyers, e.g., “one call that’s all” and “all the help the law allows,” and their use of celebrity spokesmen on TV, does a real disservice to members of the public who are drawn into personal injury “mills” rather than to serious lawyers who would fight for them.
Of all the lawyers who heavily advertise on billboards, city buses and television, I know of only one (and I won’t say which one) who is actually a credible trial attorney. Most are virtually unknown in professional circles, except by reference to their advertising. Most seldom if ever try a case in court. Most never speak at continuing legal education programs, and attend barely enough CLE to keep their licenses. Hardly any are active in professional organizations.
When clients have asked me to consider taking over cases that those firms had been handling, I have been appalled at the lack of the most basic forms of investigation and preparation.
When I have had occasion to walk through the offices of a couple of “personal injury mills” I have been shocked at the high ratio of support staff to lawyers. In some instances I have found that secretaries and scantly trained paralegals have been handling the cases from beginning to end, and actually negotiating the settlements with insurance companies, with little attorney supervision.
I have seen letters from those firms to their own clients, twisting the clients’ arms to accept insurers’ settlement offers of no more than ten percent of the fair value those cases would have if aggressively represented.
Out of morbid curiosity, I ran a Westlaw search of the names of the top advertising lawyers in metro Atlanta, seeking reported decisions in which they appeared representing a party. Certainly court decisions that are reported in Westlaw are the tiny tip of the iceberg, and often do not reflect a lawyer’s greatest successes. Most cases are resolved one way or another long before they would result in a reported decision. However, I would expect that a lawyer who really fights the good fight for clients would occasionally have a case make it into reported decisions, even when we and our clients would much rather get cases settled without taking them that far.
First I ran a search for my own cases. It turned up 38 reported decisions in state and federal courts in 30 years, a little more than one per year. Nine of those were in the past decade, involving trucking accidents, serious personal injury, wrongful death and insurance law.
Then I ran the same search for four law firms we see constantly on billboards and television advertisements.
• Perhaps the largest volume advertising lawyer has his name appear in only one reported court decision, a 1992 uninsured motorist insurance claim. But his ads with misleading jingles are on television in every major media market in Georgia, claiming that he is in each of those cities.
• One of the biggest advertisers, who uses a Hollywood actor as a TV spokesman to portray him as a specialist in trucking litigation, appears in only one reported decision, losing a no-fault insurance case in 1992 while employed as an associate at a former firm. (No one in his firm has tried a trucking accident case, participates in the organizations of trucking trial attorneys, or has shown up at any of the national trucking litigation seminars where I have been a speaker.)
• Another big advertising firm appeared in five reported cases between 1997 and 2001, losing four out of five times, but has appeared in no reported cases since 2001.
• Yet another heavy advertiser, who has billboards and bus placards plastered as thick as they can stick all over the metro area, appears in just three reported court decisions, in 1983, 1986 and 1987. But the first of those doesn’t count because he wasn’t representing a client. He was unsuccessfully defending himself in a landlord’s dispossessory action.
Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court has tied the hands of state bar organizations to effectively regulate lawyer advertising. The Bar can only prohibit “false or misleading” ads, and then only if someone files a grievance. Those who spend millions on TV ads and billboards, and who are better advertisers than lawyers, are skillful at staying just within the bounds of what they can get by with.
Federal courts have tied the hands of bar organizations to limit the sleaze and misrepresentation in lawyer advertising, on the basis of constitutional protection of commercial free speech. I am keeping an eye on federal litigation in other states challenging stricter rules to restrict misleading lawyer advertising. If the federal courts allow tighter definitions of what constitutes false and misleading advertising by lawyers, I expect Georgia would follow suit.