La. attorneys ask judge to halt limits on lawyer ads

By The Associated Press
07.31.09

NEW ORLEANS — A group of Louisiana attorneys has asked a federal judge to block the enforcement of new restrictions on lawyers' advertisements.

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman didn't immediately rule on that request after hearing arguments July 29 in a pair of lawsuits that several attorneys filed against the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board. Feldman also is weighing the board's request for him to throw out the lawsuits.

The new rules, scheduled to take effect on Oct. 1, set limits on lawyers' use of mottos, celebrity endorsements, re-enactments, client testimonials and other advertising methods.

The disciplinary board says the new rules adopted by the Louisiana Supreme Court are designed to curb deceptive ads, but the suits claim they impose unconstitutional restrictions on freedom of expression.

James Garner, a lawyer for personal injury attorney Morris Bart, said the state Supreme Court's rules are "very paternalistic and inconsistent."

"The road to violating the First Amendment was paved with good intentions," he said. "They just didn't do it the right way."

Bart's New Orleans-based firm has spent millions of dollars on television ads featuring his trademark "one call, that's all" motto.

"'One call, that's all' is arguably prohibited by the rules," Garner said.

"How is that misleading?" Feldman asked.

"It's not," Garner replied.

Phillip Wittmann, a lawyer for the disciplinary board, said the rules pass constitutional muster because government can regulate commercial speech that is misleading. Wittmann said the lawyers' lawsuits were prematurely filed and seek an impermissible "advisory opinion" from Feldman on the constitutionality of rules that haven't been implemented yet.

"We don't have a specific, concrete example of what it is they're complaining about," Wittmann said.

"So you're basically arguing that they've pointed to no specific harm or injury?" Feldman asked.

"That's right," Wittmann said.

Garner said the architects of the new rules didn't have any evidence that consumers have been deceived by lawyers' ads.

"This is about a bunch of lawyers complaining about market share," Garner said of the rules' backers. "I think there was a political issue."

Plaintiffs in the suits also include attorneys Scott Wolfe and William Gee III, as well as Public Citizen Inc., a national consumer-advocacy group that filed similar suits in New York and Florida. Gee's ads feature actor Robert Vaughn, who starred the 1960s TV spy series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."

Wolfe, a lawyer whose New Orleans firm advertises exclusively on the Internet, said the rules don't reflect the differences between television and Web ads. Wolfe said a Google ad campaign that had cost him about $160 would have cost an additional $2,900 to get all 17 variations of the ad reviewed by a bar committee.

"There's a disconnect between what the rules are and what the reality on the Internet is," he said.