The Maryland Court of Appeals, rejecting recommendations of its own rules committee that would have severely restricted lawyer advertising, has proposed its own regulations that would give Maryland the most liberal attorney advertising rules in the nation.
The courts proposed regulations, which will be open to public comment for the next month, would allow attorneys to advertise in newspapers and magazines as well as over radio and television.
The liberal proposal, which also goes against the recommendation of the Maryland Bar Association, was published yesterday. The Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest judicial body, is charged with the responsibility of regulating attorney conduct.
Although the rules will not become final until after the court receives comments on them, legal observers in Annapolis said it is unlikely the judges will make major changes in their proposal.
The issue of just how widely lawyers can advertise has been hotly debated in the legal profession ever since the Supreme Court ruled in June that bans on it are unconstitutional.
The American Bar Association at its convention in August suggested regulations that are far more restrictive than the Maryland court's proposal though less restrictive than the recommendations of the court's own rules committee. In letters to the ABA and the Maryland Court, the U.S. Justice Department had warned that both violated the Supreme Court ruling and the nation's antitrust laws.
The Maryland court's trail-blazing regulations are deceptively simple. All they do is ban any advertising that is false, fraudulent, misleading or deceptive, and warn attorneys that they are personally responsible for the contents of their ads.
Any other advertising by lawyers would be allowed.
The new proposal replaces complicated regulations recommended to the court in October by its rules committee. Those regulations would have prohibited lawyers from advertising their minimum fees for such simple services as preparing wills and divorces and instead would have required them to list their maximum fees in any ad.
The rules committee recommendations would also have banned both radio and television advertising. The Supreme Court noted that such advertising could pose regulation problems while the ABA suggested that radio advertising be allowed. The ABA said further study is needed before giving TV advertising blanket approval, however.
While the Maryland Bar Association generally applauded these ABA-proposed regulations, they were attacked at a public hearing - the first ever held in the state on rules that govern the conduct of lawyers - by representatives of legal clinics and by law school professors who saw deregulation as a way to spread lower-priced legals services to middle income Americans.
Representatives of legal clinics had said the effect of the rules committee's recommendations would make it impossible for lawyers to advertise.
The rules committee, though, said it was concerned that unrestricted advertising would mislead the public. It said it was especially worried that lawyers would use "bait and switch" tactics - advertising low-cost legal services and then tacking on extras once the client was hooked.
With its proposal, the Court of Apppeals implicitly rejected that argument. As a general guideline for lawyer advertising, it said that "special care should be taken to avoid the use of any statement or claim which is false, fraudulent, misleading or deceptive, or which is violative of any statute or rule of court."
Advertising is seen by legal reformers as a way to cut the cost of hiring a lawyer by making them competitive. Legal clinics, for instance, advertise $150 divorces in Maryland where the going rate in the state for similar cases had been twice as much. Lawyers in New York City already have seen the price of routine legal services go down under the pressure of advertising.
The Baltimore-based Legal Clinic of Cawley, Schmidt & Sharrow - which has expanded into Washington and Virginia as well as other East Coast states - plans to begin its television advertising Monday, said Ronald Sharrow.
While the Supreme Court lifted the ban on lawyer advertising, it left the exact rules under which they can advertise to the state courts that control lawyer behavior. According to an ABA survey, only Indiana has passed final regulations and they are more-restrictive than the Maryland proposal.