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The 30-second spots inviting victims of sundry misfortunes to pick up the phone for a free consultation are as entrenched in the late-night TV firmament as ads for kitchen cutlery and hair-growth products. But the days of the lawyer TV ad as quirky sideshow of the legal profession may be coming to an end. Last year, more dollars were spent by attorneys on TV advertising than ever before. And a broader range of attorneys are taking to the airwaves. Instead of dismissing television as an undignified form of solicitation, a growing number of plaintiffs attorneys are using broadcast advertising as a standard tool, particularly in the booming field of mass torts. “It’s still frowned upon by a lot of lawyers, but the attitudes are changing,” says William Berg, an Alameda plaintiffs attorney who has run television commercials for nearly eight years. According to data provided by the Television Bureau of Advertising, a television industry trade group, lawyers spent $311.3 million on television commercials in 2002, a 75 percent increase from the $177.2 million spent in 1999. The field is still dominated by the same attorneys who pioneered the medium over the past couple of decades, including Jacoby & Meyers, which spent $5.4 million on television in 2002, and The Law Offices of James Sokolove Affiliates and Partners, which spent $5.8 million. But a number of firms that haven’t traditionally run TV ads are now testing the waters. “You can’t say there’s one group of lawyers or types of lawyers doing the advertising” anymore, says William Audet, a partner at San Jose’s Alexander, Hawes & Audet which recently launched its first television commercials. According to Audet, the fen-phen litigation of the late 1990s opened his eyes to the need for television advertising and the potential of the medium. “Firms realized that when there was a defective product the recall was generally not well announced by the company or the FDA,” says Audet. “A lot of the personal injury lawyers realized that you needed to do more outreach.” As pharmaceutical, medical device and asbestos mass torts have gained momentum, the popularity of television commercials among the plaintiffs bar has similarly grown. “When you see a drug recalled by the FDA you will see immediate advertising for those cases,” Berg said. The spots are a world apart from the earlier generation of lawyer ads, which were often amateurish productions — featuring the actual attorneys touting their law firms. The ads were primarily targeted at individual auto accident victims. By contrast, today’s typical commercial is a short, informational clip that focuses on a specific product or piece of litigation, with the name of the law firm appearing almost incidentally. And while the traditional advertising model stresses running commercials over long periods of time in order to build up brand recognition, the new genre of lawyer commercials will often air in an area for a few weeks and then disappear. Various businesses produce ready-made commercials that lawyers can append their name and telephone number to and broadcast on short notice. Wingtip Communications, in Danville, maintains a constantly updated catalog of nearly 500 pre-made lawyer commercials about products, including Sulzer Orthopedics hip implants, anti-diabetes drug Rezulin, and Firestone tires. “The minute something is recalled, we have ads cut for the client,” says Wingtip President Jennifer Stanich. Stanich says her 10-year-old company now has nearly 40 law firm clients who regularly market themselves, and the company gains more clients with every new product recall. “It’s a whole new crop of law firms advertising because it’s a whole new crop of problems,” Stanich says. Not everyone sees television’s new role as a welcome, or beneficial, development. According to some defense lawyers, the blizzard of TV commercials that follow a drug or product recall net large numbers of people who have used the product in question, but who haven’t necessarily suffered any side-effects or injuries. Television advertising “has morphed over the years, where if a drug is recalled, then the vultures sweep in and start advertising,” says Philip Beck, a partner at Chicago’s Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott, who is representing Bayer in litigation involving anti-cholesterol drug Baycol. “The goal is not for lawyers to make their services known to people with legitimate claims. The goal is for lawyers to be able to sign up huge volumes of claims even though they know the vast majority of them don’t have any merit,” Beck says. Even within the plaintiffs bar, television ads seem to be favored more by personal injury attorneys than by larger, class action firms. San Francisco’s Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein has played a key role in the class action litigation of fen-phen, Sulzer hip implants, and anti-anxiety drug Buspar. But name partner Elizabeth Cabraser says the firm has not used television advertising in any of the cases. In a sign of the inroads that television has made among lawyers, though, Cabraser does not rule out TV advertising in the future. That’s a major change from just 10 years ago, when Cabraser reckons, “I would have said categorically ‘no.’” One of the reasons for this new attitude, she explains, is the increased use of broadcast media like television and radio for official court notices of class certification and settlements of cases she’s been involved in. Cabraser’s firm found in those cases that “the judges were much more open-minded about using TV and radio,” she says. “We were oversensitive about the advertising aspect of it.”

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