Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority

Spiders and Bulldogs

Florida law firms operate under some of the most restrictive advertising rules in the country. Until recently, under Florida Bar rules, ads were limited to depictions only of things that are "objectively relevant to the selection of an attorney."

In television ads, for example, lawyers could be portrayed only in front of their desks, their law books or a single-color background. The rules even specified that bookcases had to be "unadorned."

Elsewhere, meanwhile, the country's most prestigious corporate firms use ads featuring large, hairy spiders, elephants, bulldogs, a rubber-band ball and even a British soldier.

The Florida rules have created marketing challenges for some firms. To tout its teamwork, Chicago-based Foley and Lardner commissioned ads that showed a crew rowing up a waterfall, but it couldn't run them in Florida to promote its offices here.

Holland & Knight marketing manager Kathleen Larrison says her firm often uses "parallel ad campaigns" -- one for Florida and one for the rest of the country.

Leadership of the Florida Bar still tilts toward the view that advertising is an insult to the dignity of the profession. But pro-advertising lawyers got a bit of relief recently when the Bar's leadership and the Florida Supreme Court approved two long-sought changes to the rules.

The changes eliminate the prohibition against depictions that aren't specifically related to the matter of hiring a lawyer. And for the first time, television or radio advertising can feature voices other than a lawyer's.

Legal marketers say that while relaxing the rules may spur a little creativity, the changes will be subtle. After the House passed a bill in the most recent legislative session designed to ban advertising that promoted the filing of lawsuits, the Bar took the position that it favored "the most restrictive limitations on lawyer advertising" that the state constitution would permit.

The Bar's rules still prohibit the depiction of anything deemed "false, misleading or manipulative" -- a standard that's subject to interpretation case by case.

One immediate benefit of the rule changes, says Larrison, is that Florida law firms can sponsor programs on National Public Radio without running afoul of Florida Bar rules.

NPR only airs "on-air acknowledgements" read by its staff, and because the Bar prohibited the voice of anyone but a lawyer within the firm, Florida firms had to go elsewhere if they didn't want to risk Bar sanctions.

Not everyone welcomes the changes, however.

Sid Stubbs, president of Jones Foster Johnston & Stubbs in West Palm Beach, takes the position shared by many longtime Bar members who find law firm advertising undignified. "I guess you could call us the old curmudgeons," he says. Advertising, he says, "has done a great deal of damage to the legal profession."

Relaxing the rules, he fears, will continue to demean the profession. "If the legal profession is supposed to be seen as a serious profession, I don't think we need to be advertising with pictures of lions, tigers or train wrecks."

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Reginald Luster, 40, a former assistant U.S. attorney now practicing personal injury, medical negligence and employment discrimination law with partner Dexter Davis, has begun a one-year term as president of the Jacksonville Bar Association. Luster, who is the 107-year-old organization's first black president, says his election is a message to the community that "if an individual works hard and has the respect of his peers, you will rise to positions of leadership."

The Stetson University College of Law Lawyers Association has named West Palm Beach litigator Paul Turk its Outstanding Alumni Representative for 2004. Turk, a 1979 cum laude graduate of the Gulfport-based law school, is a partner at Gunster Yoakley.

The Florida Bar was host recently to a group of Russian lawyers who spent four days studying Florida Bar rules and organization, visited the Florida Supreme Court, the state circuit court in Tallahassee, Florida State University College of Law and several law firms. The lawyers, delegates from the 1-year-old Russian organization that regulates lawyers, are in the process of developing their own rules for membership, legal education and lawyer regulation.