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LAWYERS TRY TO DRUM UP BUSINESS WITH ADS

Quick, name three Buffalo law firms -- chances are, even if you've never needed legal services, you can list at least that many, thanks to the rising tide of lawyer advertising.

There are billboards for law firms along every major roadway in metro Buffalo, smiling lawyers grace the back covers of both the Bell Atlantic and Talking Phone Book directories -- and as any local sports fan can attest, lawyer ads are as prevalent as commercials for beer and shaving products on radio and television coverage of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres.

Their pitches range from rather bland offers for free consultations on personal injury, bankruptcy, divorce and DWI cases, to more free-wheeling exclamations, such as "I want your million-dollar case" and "Fighting for justice."

Donald P. Eppers, president of the Erie County Bar Association, said ads by local lawyers are multiplying faster than jokes about the legal profession.

"For better or worse, there's been a progressive increase in lawyer advertising," Eppers said. "I personally attribute that to the perceived need to stay competitive. If you are competing for a certain kind of client, and your competition has ads and billboards all over the place, there's pressure to advertise, too."

While there are no firm numbers on exactly how many Buffalo-area law firms are turning to mainstream advertising vehicles to find new clients, at least one local company has charted the growth. White Directory Publishers, the Town of Tonawanda company that publishes The Talking Phone Book, has seen a 600 percent increase in full-page lawyer ads in the past decade.

In its 1989-90 book, there were three full-page ads placed by law firms. By the 1994-95 edition, the number had nearly quadrupled to 11, and in the 1999-2000 book, there are 18 full-page ads.

Both The Talking Phone Book and the Bell Atlantic directories also contain many pages of smaller, display ads for local law firms. The current White Directories book contains what adds up to more than 14 full pages of the smaller ads, while the Bell-Atlantic book has more than 10 pages worth.

No other profession takes up more phone book pages with display ads than lawyers.

"There's definitely a lot of interest in advertising by the legal community. Every year there's more," said Laura Mongeon, a spokeswoman for White Directories.

And its a phenomenon that extends well beyond Buffalo. Of the 500 some local directories Bell-Atlantic prints for its various markets, about 50 percent of them have an ad for a law firm gracing its back cover.

"They're some of our best advertisers," said Gia Oui, director of corporate communications for Bell Atlantic.

That's pretty amazing considering that lawyers were not permitted to advertise their services until fairly recently. In 1908, the American Bar Association declared lawyer advertising unprofessional, on the grounds that the profession held itself to higher standards than most others.

That policy prevailed until the mid-1970s, when a few more brazen attorneys began to test the bar's Code of Professional Responsibility, taking cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for an answer.

The American Bar Association now estimates that 60 percent of its members do some form of advertising.

Among the local legal ad pioneers was Buffalo's Siegel, Kelleher and Kahn, which was the first local firm to use television advertising to reach potential personal injury and family law clients. That law firm was soon joined by Buffalo attorney Jeffrey Freedman, who ran late-night ads for assistance with bankruptcy cases.

Dennis Kahn, a partner in Siegel, Kelleher and Kahn, is the first to admit that those early ads were not greeted warmly by the local legal community.

"When we first started, there were more than a few people who let me know they thought it was inappropriate," Kahn said. "But a lot of those lawyers are now advertising. So what does that tell you?"

More recently, Buffalo law firm Cellino & Barnes turned heads with a sprinkling of billboards along the area's major commuting routes, which featured oversize head shots of the name-sake partners.

Steve Barnes, whose hair-challenged scalp became banter for more than one radio morning show, said the ribbing he's taken from family, friends, colleagues and others over the signs hasn't dampened his enthusiasm for advertising one bit.

"We started off with just a handful in 1994, and now we have more than 60. We've got them from Buffalo to Olean, Jamestown, Fredonia and Dunkirk. Obviously, we think they work," Barnes said.

Neither Barnes nor Kahn was able to say what percentage of their clients come through their doors because they saw a TV, phone book or billboard ad, or heard the firm's radio advertising. But both firms believe the ads increase their name recognition.

"If you walked up to someone on the street and asked them to name three law firms, I am willing to bet Siegel, Kelleher and Kahn is on the list," Kahn said. "They may never be a client, but it puts us top of mind if they need legal services."

Barnes said it is difficult to measure direct client/ad relationship, but having the firm's name all over town doesn't hurt.

"A friend of a co-worker might ask if they know a lawyer, and they'll mention us because they saw the ad. It becomes word-of-mouth referral because people know our name," he said.

While lawyers are as free as car dealerships to promote their services on the airwaves, on billboards, in phone books, as well as through bulk mailings and newsletters, they still face a number of restrictions as to what they can say.

They are not allowed to claim they are "specialists" in a particular field of law, if they don't have the credentials to back up the claim. They can't guarantee results. And they can't pepper their ads with dollar signs to lure big-money cases.

These guidelines are governed by both federal and states rules. Buffalo attorney Sharon Stern Gerstman headed two New York State Bar Association committees that reviewed lawyer advertising practices through most of the 1990s.

"It's a very, very difficult area because you're forced to wear so many different hats," Gerstman said. "To look at it objectively, you have to wear the 'defender of rights' hat, the 'competitor' hat, and the hat of the lawyer who is embarrassed by the tone of the ad."

Gerstman said she started off her committee work thinking that no lawyer advertising was acceptable, but after much research and discussion, began to believe that in many cases, the ads provide information that's valuable to the public.

"Not everybody travels in circles where they have ever met a lawyer, or knows anyone who has ever hired one," she said. "For these people, the ads provide information as basic as that there are different kinds of lawyers for different kinds of cases."

But while she no longer feels lawyer ads are inappropriate, she said it's important to remember that like any other consumer transaction, the buyer needs to be aware.

"The best marketer isn't necessarily the best lawyer," she added. "It's important to keep that in mind."

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