About 200 Maryland lawyers were booted out of the Maryland State Bar Association recently for refusing to pay a special $40 fee to support a $250,000 television advertising campaign promoting the use of attorneys.
Many of the lawyers who refused to pay the assessment said they believed the campaign was inappropriate and ineffective, or "a charade disguised to hawk legal services," according to a top bar association official.
One Rockville lawyer, Allan Bloom, who protested the assessment, said "I don't think the bar association should be doing that kind of hard sell. That is cheap, and it cheapens the image of the profession."
The advertising campaign, which began last fall and ended this spring, included three commercials -- one stressing the value of lawyers in various situations such as buying a home and starting a business, another advertising the association's lawyer referral service, and a third, pushing the use of lawyers to draft wills.
That commericial opened with a picture of a pleasant young couple reading in their living room while a background voice intoned, "like 3 out of 4 people you just haven't gotten around to making out your will."
As the couple climbed the stairs and tucked in their child, the voice went in: "You can leave it to state law to distribute your property and decide the future of those you love, but if you'd rather make those decisions yourself, call your lawyer soon. Someday can be too late."
The final line in that commercial like the two others in the campaign, is, "The lawyers of Maryland want you to know."
To Bloom, whose bar membership was terminated in April, the ad seemed offensive. He said: "I'm a lawyer in Maryland, and I don't want people to know that."
But James Maffitt, a Baltimore lawyer who heads the association's Public Awareness Committee, disagreed with criticisms, saying that the purpose of the campaign was to inform the public of legal needs, increase demand for legal services and set a high standard for legal advertising.
"An awful lot of people get in trouble because they didn't know they had a legal problem or potential legal problem," said Maffitt. "I hope we can make people stop and think about whether they needed lawyers."
Maffitt added that the bar has been concerned about "how the public felt toward us." Surveys taken by the association showed that people who used lawyers viewed them favorably and the idea was to have "more people get to know lawyers" and improve the public attitude.
Association President M. Peter Moser said he believes "the implicit reason" for refusing to pay in the majority cases "was money . . . but people don't say that very oftern.
He also said he was "distressed by people terminating their membership for any reason." The association's officers, he said, extended the normal payment deadline by 30 days this year and attempted through personal phone calls or letters to change the members' minds.
Beverly alderton, the group's director of administration, said that memberships of 491 of approximately 7,500 members were terminated this year, but the reason in many cases was failure to pay the $51 annual dues.
Maffitt said his committee plans to recommend that the campaign be dropped next year. He said he believes that the "value of institutional advertising" has been proved, but that the group's "membership is too diverse for us to provide advertising that will benefit our members in proportion to the dollars we have to spend."
Maryland's bar association is a volunntary organizaiton of lawyers, unlike bar associations in some other states where membership is required in order to practice law.