What To Make of Tampa’s Top Lawyer Advertising Spot

Today the news outlets are reporting that Tampa Bay holds the dubious distinction of the top place in the country for lawyer TV commercials. According to a study(pdf) performed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s (which hates personal injury lawyers) think-tank, over an eight month period the Tampa Bay Area saw 164,781 lawyer ad “spots” – i.e. commercials. That’s a lot. Let’s run the numbers here, and assume that the commercials average 30 seconds.

164,781 commercials x 30 seconds = 4,943,430 seconds. That translates into 82,390.5 minutes. That’s also 1,373 hours and change. Or right about 57 days. So out of the 240 day period, lawyer ads ran on TV for 57 of them. That’s 23.75% of the time.

Why is this?

Many people (including the group that performed the study) say that the high advertising volume is a byproduct of a “soft market” for personal injury suits. This is kind of like saying you don’t advertise your ice delivery business in Antartica, you advertise in the Sahara Desert. According to this reasoning, personal injury lawyers buy a lot of commercials in areas where they get the best cases (biggest verdicts or settlements). I’ll talk more about whether or not this is true in a later post. Right now I want to talk about what enabled the ads themselves.

Keep in mind that demand in the market for personal injury lawyers is fixed. This creates what economists call a “zero sum” market for advertising. Personal injury lawyers can’t go out and try to create demand for their services by causing injuries. The demand for their services is fixed at the number of injured people, and the personal injury lawyers compete for those people’s business by advertising. If one firm gets 50% of those people, the most other lawyers can hope to get is part of the remaining 50%.

Lawyers didn’t always have the ability to advertise. State bar associations prohibited any lawyer ads until the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bates v State Bar of Arizona, where the Supreme Court found that the blanket prohibition on advertising violated the First Amendment. State bars have mostly tried to keep a tight rein ever since, but the courts are slowly lifting lawyer advertising restrictions one at a time.

It could be that the longstanding advertising restrictions combined with the zero-sum nature of the market have created a scenario where only a few large firms have the war chests to roll out large-scale lowest common denominator ads. It’s a world that the bar associations themselves created through a byzantine set of nearly incomprehensible regulations. An old professor of mine was recently quoted in the newspaper with a good example of this:

To illustrate how the rules are set up to benefit corporate lawyers, Atkinson described a scenario:

There’s a wreck on the highway and the driver of one car is injured.

Two lawyers approach.

One offers to help the driver get his medical bills paid by the person responsible for causing the wreck.

The other lawyer represents the person who just ran the driver off the road. He wants to persuade the driver to sign a release form absolving his client.

The lawyer who wanted to help would be violating ethics rules, Atkinson said. The other lawyer would be in the clear.

“It’s just bizarre,” Atkinson said. “They’re trying to restrict lawyers’ access to clients as much as they can. They don’t like personal injury lawyers.

The bar associations try to regulate lawyer advertising through very hyper-specific rules – you can’t telegraph people with legal problem X, but you can with legal problem Y (yes, really). You can say you practice in the area of X, but you can’t say you are an “expert” in that area. If you do solicit clients with legal problem Y directly, you have to maintain a physical office and provide that address. No wonder lawyers go for the lowest common denominator that reaches the most people and stays mostly inside the lane created by the bar associations. By creating the byzantine set of advertising rules the state bar associations forced lawyers into lowest common denominator ads.