A committee appointed by Maryland's highest court has proposed restrictions on lawyer advertising that go far beyond those suggested by the American Bar Association, which itself has been criticized for failing to follow lawyer advertising guidelines set by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The prefaced restrictions, which must be approved by the Maryland Court of Appeals, would prohibit lawyers from advertising their minimum fees for such simple services as preparing wills and divorces and instead require them to list the maximum charges for their services if any fees are listed. Radio and television advertising would be banned.
The proposal was immediately attacked as too restrictive by lawyers who claim that lawyer advertising is the way to get better, less expensive legal services to middle-income Americans.
"It's so restrictive as to not make it worth advertising at all," said Ronald Sharrow, a partner in the Legal Clinic of Cawley, Schmidt & Sharrow, "We can't reach the right people with the type of advertising we'd have to put in."
If the Court of Appeals approves the restrictions, Sharrow said the he would challenge them in federal court and take the case back to the Supreme Court if necessary.
While the Supreme court overturned bans on lawyer advertising last June and specifically allowed the listing of fees for "routine legal services," it left to the state courts - the job of setting guidlines for their jurisdictions.
According to an ABA survey, no state court has come up with final rules, although a number have recommendations before them that were drafted by state bar associations or, as in Maryland's case, a court-appointed committee of lawyers.
Like Maryland, in most cases the rules are more restrictive than these suggested by the ABA during its August convention, where the controversy of lawyer advertising dominated the meeting.
Recognizing the extreme emotionalism among lawyers over this issue, the Maryland Court of Appeals is planning to allow the public to comment on the proposed advertising rules at an open hearing - the first time in the state's history - nonlawyers have been given any chance to influence directly the regulations under which lawyers practice their profession.
The hearing is planned for later this month - the exact date is still undecided - and the court hopes to announce its new rules by Dec. 5 so they can go into effect on jan. 1.
The most controversial part of the proposed Maryland rules would bar the advertising of minimum fees ("divorces from $50," for example) and instead limit any fee listings to the maximum charges for any services.
Moreover, any listing of fees would have to include "a complete written description" of the services provided. This description would have to be in type as large as the fee information itself.
While critics of the proposed restrictions charge that the committee fears unrestricted advertising by lawyers because it would result in lower legal fees, the committee said it was setting guidelines to protect the public from misleading advertisements.
"The inference to be drawn . . . is that lawyers are not entitled to the respect and trust implicit in our role as officers of the court, but instead are to be considered as potential defendants in a consumer fraud case," said Sharrow.
But the court's committee said it was concerned that lawyers would try to use "bait and switch" tactics by advertising low fees and then add on extras to increase the final cost.
The Maryland proposal also would ban radio and television advertising because of difficulties cited by the committee in regulating them and "the greater possibilities of misleading a less literate public than that accustomed to the print media," said Judge Kenneth C. Proctor, chairman of the rules committee.
The ABA has suggested that radio advertising be allowed, but left the question of television advertising to the states, just because so many low and middle-income Americans depend on broadcasts instead of newspapers for news and information.
The Supreme Court recognized that "the special problems of advertising on the lectronic broadcast media will warrant special consideration."
Otherwise, the court's rulings listed few other permissible limitations on lawyer advertising: false, misleading or deceptive advertising; the "time, place and manner of advertising," and advertising illegal transactions.
For those reasons, U.S. Assistant Attorney General John H. Shenefield in Washington warned the ABA last August that its suggested restrictions on lawyer advertising went furhter than the Supreme Court allowed.
He said the restrictions "stress unduly the alleged hazards associated with the use of advertising."
So far, advertising has proved to be a mixed blessing to lawyers. Many surveyed across the country say that advertisements failed to attract the new business they hoped for. But others have reported that the constant repetition of ads is beginning to bring in new clients.
Legal clinics that specialize in handling routine matters at costs lower than most lawyers charge believe that advertising is necessary for their survival. The Supreme Court case, for instance, was brought by a Phoenix clinic, and the Cawley, Schmidt & Sharrow legal clinic - has has more than doubled the number of its offices since the Supreme Court decision.