Why even D-list stars and law firms in Florida don’t mix

Growing up watching “Star Trek” re-runs at my older brother’s insistence, I had a huge crush on Captain Kirk.

Many years later, seeing William Shatner shill for the Mike Slocumb Law Firm, Hupy & Abraham and a slew of other obscure plaintiffs-side shops made me feel…hmm, I’m not sure there’s a word, but the laugh-cry emoji pretty much sums it up.

What it didn’t do was make me think Shatner or the firms had done anything unethical by having him solemnly proclaim, “If you or a loved one has been a victim of medical negligence, call now.”

But in Florida, it would be a definite no-no.

According to the American Bar Association, Florida is unique in how it prohibits lawyers from using celebrities in ads. As a result, the state bar has been compelled to wade into murky waters, with results that can seem arbitrary and at times even absurd.

On Wednesday, for example, the bar’s Standing Committee on Advertising wrestled with the weighty question of how many YouTube followers makes someone a celebrity. In an 8 to 1 vote, the members determined that 25,000 was enough to qualify.

It’s not clear where the fame cut-off would be — 15,000 YouTube followers? 10,000? What about other platforms? My 19-year-old daughter has 38,000 followers on TikTok. Is she a celebrity? (If so, she’ll be pleased to know it and will probably want me to buy her some expensive sunglasses.) Do my 3,112 Twitter followers get me close?

Florida Bar Rule 4-7.15(c) states: “A lawyer may not engage in unduly manipulative or intrusive advertisements. An Advertisement is unduly manipulative if it: contains the voice or image of a celebrity.”

There’s a narrow exception that allows a lawyer to “use the voice or image of a local announcer, disc jockey or radio personality who regularly records advertisements so long as the person recording the announcement does not endorse or offer a testimonial on behalf of the advertising lawyer or law firm.”

For the record, I do not feel unduly manipulated by William Shatner advising me to “call a knowledgeable law firm to find out what your case may really be worth.”

In a broader sense, attorney advertising restrictions (beyond the normal bounds of consumer protection statutes barring false, misleading or deceptive claims) strike me as unnecessary — a holdover from an earlier era when lawyers seemed to think the legal profession’s reputation needed to be guarded like some Victorian maiden from anything too crass or vulgar.

We trust lawyers to litigate matters of literal life or death, to fight over civil rights and election integrity and the limits of government power — not to mention battling over billions of dollars in civil disputes on a daily basis.

Surely we can trust them to decide on appropriate advertisements for their firms.

Leslie Smith, senior communications coordinator for the Florida Bar, in an email told me that the celebrity ban has been in place since 1990.

“The concern is that viewers are more easily persuaded by a recognized celebrity than someone who is not recognizable to the public,” she wrote.

Right. That’s why everyone from Nike to Weight Watchers to Capital One uses celebrity endorsers. Not even the healthcare field is immune, with pharmaceutical companies tapping, for example, former presidential candidate Bob Dole to sell Viagra.

So why can’t law firms in Florida do something equivalent?

Smith wrote that the rationale behind the celebrity ban was to prevent “overreaching or misleading through manipulation of uniquely pervasive and effective media.”

Also, she continued, the rule is intended to eliminate “practices perceived to have been at least part of the cause for the public’s disaffection with and disrespect for the judicial system and the legal profession and to be impairing the right and ability of plaintiffs to seat a fair and impartial jury.”

I actually think people might like lawyers more if celebrities said nice things about them in commercials.

Smith also said the restrictions “encourage lawyers to spend their advertising dollars on providing useful information to the public concerning legal rights and needs, the availability and terms of legal services and selection of a lawyer.”

That’s very laudable, but it’s not exactly the purpose of advertising.

In the ethics case decided Wednesday, the bar’s Standing Committee on Advertising did find that the so-called celebrity YouTuber could still read an ad for the lawyer, similar to a radio announcer. However, it was a bridge too far for him to say “I would recommend checking out” the sponsoring law firm for veterans-related legal services, because that would be a prohibited paid endorsement.

Does the bar really think Floridians would be so dazzled by a quasi-recommendation from this 25,000-follower YouTuber as to render them unable to make a rational decision about hiring counsel?

If so, they’ve all got bigger problems than banning celebrity law firm ads.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Janelle B. Smith

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