“Injured in a car accident? Injured at work? Slipped at the store? Call this attorney now for compensation,” reads a typical ad for a plaintiff’s personal injury attorney. A lawyer often appears behind a desk or in court in the ad, and a phone number spelling out a word or phrase flashes on the screen for viewers to call.
There was a stigma surrounding lawyer advertising, and it was restricted for much of the 20th century until the Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that it violated First Amendment protections. The court said the restriction puts access to legal services at a disadvantage “particularly for those who are not yet poor and ignorant”.
Spending on legal services advertising on television reached $1.2 billion as of November, according to Kantar.
Many personal injury lawyers have a lot of hype due to competition and the unusual business models employed by many practices. Ads can also help clients who don’t know any personal injury attorneys, can’t rely on a recommendation, or don’t know their legal rights.
“I advertise to showcase my business and hopefully attract business,” said John Morgan, founder of Morgan & Morgan, the largest injury law firm in the country.
Morgan has appeared on lighthearted TV shows and on billboards with the tagline “For the People.” Morgan’s most successful ads, he said, are those that inform people about rights they may not know.
In personal injury cases, “clients tend to be one-timers, and you don’t have repeated interactions with the agency,” said Samuel Issacharoff, a professor of tort law at New York University School of Law. “The question is always how do you make the connection between the injured common man and the lawyer?”
Personal injury lawyers have a variety of advertising practices, said Nora Freeman Engstrom, a Stanford Law School professor who studies attorney advertising. Some attorneys who advertise handle cases themselves. Other attorneys advertise, then refer the cases they receive to other attorney networks, and get a cut of the revenue.
Then there are what Engstrom calls “settlement factories” — personal injury lawyers who resolve a large number of cases but “not necessarily focus on maximizing the value of each individual claim.” These attorneys advertise to take on as many cases as possible.
Most personal injury attorneys charge a contingency fee, so they only get paid if they negotiate a settlement for their client or win a case at trial. Fewer than 1% of cases go to trial. Their fees typically range from 33% to 40% of the total award.
The contingency fee structure is the only way many people can afford accident legal representation.
a marketing game
“It really becomes an advertising and marketing game for personal injury lawyers,” said Jason Abraham, vice president of Hupy & Abraham, the largest personal injury law firm in the Midwest. You’ll never be an actor in the marketing circus. It’s impossible.”
Personal injury companies often advertise on television during the day as a “direct response” tool to reach people recovering from accidents in the hospital or at home. “If someone was lying in the hospital, they would call immediately,” Abraham said.
But critics say the attorney ad is misused and efforts are underway to take it down.
“We’re not saying they can’t advertise. It just can’t be misleading or deceptive or unethical,” said Matt Weber, senior vice president for law reform policy at the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform. Lots of frivolous and speculative litigation.”
The number of lawsuits filed is falling because of higher costs to file lawsuits and stricter state laws designed to raise the bar for litigation.