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Before the Information Age, a trip to the local Division of Motor Vehicles could be an experience in sensory deprivation. You were lucky to find information on which line to wait in, let alone get news or stock market results. These days, visitors to the DMV are greeted by electronic message boards that do everything from displaying news to advertising where to go for a new transmission. Or for a lawyer. “Driving with a suspended license?” runs one ad, preceded by an electronic image of a police car chasing a motorist. “DWI? No insurance? Legal assistance is a phone call away.” That would be Newark, N.J., solo practitioner John Wojtal, who — according to the ad — handles “all municipal court and criminal actions” and “DMV appeals.” Wojtal, whose ads have been running at the Newark DMV office since January, says he got the idea after seeing a similar ad by Saddle Brook solo practitioner Peter Van Aulen on the message board at the DMV office in Wayne, N.J.. Van Aulen was one of the first attorneys in New Jersey to try it, beginning about a year and a half ago. Eight attorneys across the state are now using the DMV advertising niche. Wojtal says the company that operates the message boards across the state, Motor Vehicle Network of Norwalk, Conn., suggested the ad’s language and the police car graphic. Attorneys pay $200 to $600 a month for the ads, depending how busy that particular DMV is, says Scott Savage, one of the owners of Motor Vehicle Network. Savage says that the message boards are popular with state agencies because they “reduce the perceived waiting time” of customers and cost nothing for the state to operate. He points out that the message boards are silent and so are less intrusive than television, since people can choose to ignore them. All of this was made possible by the privatization of New Jersey DMV offices, which began in 1994. Motor Vehicle Network began installing the message boards about two years ago, although not all New Jersey DMVs have them, says Peg Emberger, the president of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Agents Association, which is made up of the agents contracted by the state to run the privatized offices. The association asked the DMV to allow the message boards in order to improve customer service, says Emberger, who is in charge of the Rio Grande DMV in Cape May County. “We try to find ways, creatively, to make these places look a little better,” she says, noting that the state does not receive any revenue from the advertisements and that Motor Vehicle Network pays all the costs of installation and maintenance. Nor are attorneys the only ones advertising. The message board in Newark flashes several other ads targeted to motorists, including a transmission repair shop “1.5 miles south of this DMV.” The only prohibited forms of advertisements, says Emberger, are ads for alcohol and tobacco. And there is a clear disclaimer that runs with the ads, lest anyone mistakenly assume a connection with the DMV: “All advertisers displayed in the news service are wholly-owned companies and are not connected or affiliated with the State of New Jersey.” BUT IS IT ETHICAL? Attorney advertising inside local DMV offices has not been addressed by ethics opinions, says Israel Dubin, the secretary of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s Committee on Attorney Advertising, but he says the ads are probably on safe ground. The state’s Rules of Professional Conduct generally allow attorneys to advertise their services in telephone directories and newspapers or on radio and television, so long as the advertisement is not false or misleading. Dubin notes that the physical proximity of an advertisement to its targeted audience has never been a determinative factor. For example, an attorney could ethically advertise on a billboard directly outside a municipal court. Dubin also recalls that, after the 1994 pipeline explosion in Edison, N.J., a law firm located near the blast site placed advertisements in its window. The committee would also not have a problem with the police car graphic in the message board advertisements, according to Dubin. While N.J. RPC 7.2 bars an attorney from using “drawings, animations, dramatizations, music or lyrics” in televised advertisements, the prohibition has not been enforced. In fact, he says, the committee is drafting a recommendation to the Court that the provision be eliminated, in part because of concerns about restricting freedom of speech. But some attorneys who practice in municipal court, however, are disturbed by the image of attorneys targeting captive audiences inside the DMV offices. Such ads are “suggestive of some kind of approval by, or promotion by, the state,” says Robert Alexander of Clinton, N.J.,’s Alexander & Bartlett, a former municipal court judge who serves on the State Bar Association’s Committee on Municipal Practice. John Coyle, of Phillipsburg, N.J.,’s Coyle & Martyak, agrees that such ads “give a misimpression that the DMV is sanctioning these attorneys.” Coyle, who serves on the Committee on Municipal Practice, says that such advertising suggests that the attorney has an “inside pull or inside track with the DMV.” Robert DePersia, a Haddonfield, N.J., solo practitioner who specializes in DWI defense, points out that even though DMV offices have been recently privatized, “the average person still thinks they are dealing with the state of New Jersey” when walking into a DMV office. According to DePersia, DMV personnel often inform people that they should consult with a lawyer. Moreover, he says, the four regional New Jersey DMV offices hold quasi-judicial proceedings for certain matters, such as license suspensions, in which people are often represented by attorneys at the DMV facilities. “It is a situation where the actual agencies have roles on their premises for attorneys to play,” says DePersia, distinguishing attorney advertising from ads placed, for example, by local businesses. Wojtal, for his part, sees no danger of confusing the public. “It is clearly delineated that these are private enterprises” advertising on the message board, says Wojtal. Van Aulen agrees. “I never had a client come to me who thought I was connected to the state.” While ads should be honest and clear, explains Van Aulen, “I don’t think lawyers should be afraid to be bold and creative” in their advertising. Yet, despite the ads’ prominence, Wojtal and Van Aulen say they have not brought in a lot of business. Van Aulen, who pays about $400 per month for an ad that flashes every 15 minutes, is hoping to change that. Next month, he will begin paying $800 per month for a fixed screen that will show his ad continuously.

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