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When it’s three o’clock in the morning and everything is going wrong in your life, there’s a certain kind of ad you might see on basic cable. Lawyers — usually guys — promise to battle the heartless, tight-wad insurance companies on your behalf. There’s disaster footage and stiff readings off of cue cards. The ads look like they were made in a high school A.V. class.

Believe it or not, lawyer ads are actually tightly regulated. There was an era before ads like these were allowed — and a big bang after which they couldn’t be contained. And now, the legal world is in a subtle, possibly endless civil war over how attorneys should advertise their services (and whether they should advertise at all).

Of the most outspoken attorneys in front of the camera, there are Lowell “The Hammer” Stanley, and Jim “The Hammer” Shapiro, and  Jim “The Texas Hammer” Adler.

But lawyer ads were not always so direct.

Back in the 19th century, you’d see ads for attorneys on the front page of newspapers, alongside ads for doctors, and saddle and harness manufacturers. But in 1908, the American Bar Association put in new rules declaring that  self-laudation (that is, speaking well of oneself) “defies the traditions and lower the tone of our high calling and are intolerable.”

Business cards were okay, but not much beyond that. The ban lasted until 1976, when  the Law Clinic of Bates and O’Steen ran a small classified ad in the Arizona Republic. The Arizona Bar  suspended the two lawyers (but only for a week or so). Bates and O’Steen appealed the case all the way to the US Supreme Court. And, in the now infamous Bates vs.  State Bar of Arizona, the court ruled that lawyers have the same freedom of speech as everybody else — and that speech extends to advertising.

That pretty much opened up the flood gates. Which is how you get promises of a pain-to-rain alchemical process.

Today, laws governing lawyer ads vary state by state. Florida, Texas, and Iowa have some of the stricter regulations, although reprimands for breaking them are not that severe.

Massachusetts and Connecticut, meanwhile, are like the wild west of lawyer ads. Though this New York ad, featuring a bilingual anthropomorphic squirrel, has to be one of the most surreal:

Though Jamie Casino’s Superbowl ad has to be the most epic ever.

Our Tiny Letter Spotlight is on Wendy MacNaughton this week.

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Wendy’s new book, Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in its Own Words, is incredible.



This story was produced by contributor Sean “The Hammer” Cole; a version of this story originally ran on the podcast Life of the Law. Sean spoke with On the Media host (and former Advertising Age critic) Bob Garfield; Elizabeth Tarbert, who is on the ethics council for the Florida Bar; divorce attorney Steve Miler; Lucien Pera, an attorney who advises nationwide law firms on their ads; personal injury attorneys Matt Hardin and Lowell “The Hammer” Stanley.


“How to Cure a Hangover in April” — K-Conjog (Abandon Building)

  1. There’s still room in the market for a “Texas Screwdriver”, who will “… keep screwing, and screwing and SCREWING to get your money!”, and inherently retaining truth in advertising.

  2. Eric L.

    Here in CT lawyer ads are often more toned down because they might also air in NY and MA. Hartford signals leach into Springfield and New Haven goes into Long Island. (The other major market, Stamford, has no tv station so it usually gets NY news and almost no local coverage from anyone). Now, if the firm decides go for just cable advertising it’s another story, but most lawyers who do ads here seem to want something they can get on broadcast stations.

    Recently, CT lawyer John Haymond who’s ads are ubiquitous here recently ran into legal trouble because he used Judge Judy’s image in one of his spots.

  3. Bert

    Is the song (remix of the Lowell ‘The Hammer’ Stanley, 17min33sec into the episode) available somewhere? It’s kinda neat!

  4. Katie

    Whoa! I’ve been on a multi-year quest to find the song at 6:35! And there it is. What is that song called??!?

    1. kris

      I also came here to find the name of this song…. smoothest song ever. Would love to see transcripts with song credits, I’ve been turned onto some great songs this way by different NPR shows

  5. Karyn

    I grew up watching those Lowell Stanley ads. The beginning of this episode started me down memory lane but I didn’t fully realize why until the Norfolk mention later on, and then it all came together. Thanks for the reminder!

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