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Stuart Felsen bet $400,000 that a two-page ad in the Yellow Pages would lead armies of clients to his doorstep. G. Jeffrey Moeller had a more sophisticated strategy: He hooked up with a national estate-planning company that referred customers to him. As it turned out, both lawyers attracted more attention than they wanted. The New Jersey Committee on Attorney Advertising hit them with ethics complaints that serve as reminders to all practitioners: Don’t market yourself without checking the rules. Moeller, a former Hunterdon County Bar president, has argued that everything he did was ethical or, at worst, that he was operating in a gray area. Either way, the Oct. 18 complaint against him suggests what can happen when lawyers take referrals from companies not subject to professional regulation and allow their names to be used in hyped-up mail-order solicitations. The April 26 complaint against Felsen, a Randolph sole practitioner, illustrates the pitfalls of over-aggressive Yellow Page advertising. His ad violated rules against falsely heightening potential clients’ expectations, the complaint says. The ad touted experience, office locations and Bar group memberships that didn’t exist and failed to abide by a rule requiring advertisements to include the full name of the advertising lawyer’s firm, the complaint says. What makes Felsen’s case particularly interesting are its origins and the effect it had on other lawyers. They include a rival Yellow Page advertiser who blew the whistle, a criminal lawyer who first alerted Felsen to the possibility that the ad was an ethical quagmire and two lawyers who were charged with him but exonerated. According to pleadings and a transcript of a Sept. 11 hearing before the New Jersey Committee on Attorney Advertising, it all began after Felsen joined a New York legal marketing consortium, Law Advisory Group. For a fee, the group gave its members Internet advertising and forums for exchange of expertise and business, a pseudo-virtual law office. Members also got office space in Manhattan. Felsen was enthusiastic and he decided it would be good for members to advertise together under the Law Advisory Group’s banner. Among the members were Adam Toraya of Newark, N.J., and Anthony Verni of West Orange, N.J. Felsen testified later that there were vague discussions about advertising jointly, but before getting approval from anyone, he contracted with Bell Atlantic for an elaborate ad campaign using all three lawyers’ names in several Yellow Page books for a staggering $400,000. He got a lot for his money. Because the telephone company puts the biggest ads first in each profession’s listing, Felsen’s two-page, four-color splash was to be the first display under the lawyer heading in all the Essex, Passaic and Bergen County, N.J., editions he placed it in. But the complaint says the advertisement failed several ethics tests. First, it trumpeted the Law Advisory Group, not a specific firm, as required by the rules. Felsen’s, Toraya’s and Verni’s names were listed, but there was no mention that they were not in the same firm. The ad also claimed that the Law Advisory Group had offices in various counties. “Our Attorneys, With Over 60 Years of Experience, are EXPERTS In Their Field of Practice,” the ad also said. That’s a no-no because only certified attorneys can claim to be experts and none of the three are certified, none of them had offices in Passaic or Bergen counties, and their combined experience was actually about 20 years. Felsen testified later that he placed the ad with the expectation that he would find seven other members of the Law Advisory Group to split the cost. And the combined locations and experience of all those lawyers would presumably make the ad copy correct. Sadly, Felsen didn’t even have two other lawyers with him. Verni and Toraya testified that they never authorized their inclusion in the copy. Toraya didn’t know about the ad until he met Felsen face-to-face for the first time. According to the testimony, Felsen was trying to interest James Maynard of Morristown, N.J.’s Maynard & Truland in joining his advertising consortium, and Felsen, Toraya and Maynard met in Maynard’s office on Jan. 28. Felsen showed them the ad. “My jaw dropped,” Maynard recalled. ” ‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘this is all wrong.’” Toraya’s reaction was even stronger. He drove immediately to Bell Atlantic’s Maplewood, N.J., sales office to try to stop the presses. He was partly too late. Bell Atlantic was able to kill the ad in some editions, but it was too late to stop it in Passaic County. There, it caught the attention of a lawyer whose one-page ad was among those bumped back in the book by Felsen’s display. That lawyer ripped the ad from the book and sent it to the Committee on Attorney Advertising. “It was purely a business decision,” says the whistle-blowing lawyer, who asked that he not be identified. “It was a fabulous ad, the best one in the book. If I was a client and looking for a lawyer I’d pick that ad, not mine. I didn’t need the competition.” The pleadings suggest that Felsen’s troubles stemmed from ignorance of the rules, not venality. “He’s a nice guy and a good guy,” Maynard says. “This whole thing came out of exuberance, not from nefariousness.” Felsen’s lawyer, Dominick Aprile, of Lakewood, N.J.’s Bathgate, Wegener & Wolf, says “Mr. Felsen and I are confident that the Committee on Advertising will resolve the matter in a fair and equitable way in light of the innocent and inadvertent manner in which the events in question occurred.” Verni, the other lawyer listed in Felsen’s ad, says he found out about the ad when the ethics cops notified him in April. He says he’s less upset at Felsen than at the ethics system for including him and Toraya in the April complaint despite the uncontradicted submissions by all three lawyers that Felsen acted alone. “He basically fell on his sword and said the other guys had nothing to do with it and they still charged us,” Verni says. The complaint against him and Toraya were dismissed after the Sept. 11 hearing, but Verni says it cost him $4,000 in legal fees. Toraya did not return a telephone call last week, but Verni says they are considering a suit against Felsen and Bell Atlantic, now Verizon Corp., for concocting an ad without their permission. The telephone company shouldn’t have put their names in the ad without their permission, he says. What is the phone company’s responsibility? Frank Cannanela, who was Toraya’s representative in Maplewood, N.J., and now heads the sales office that covers Essex County, says it’s impossible for the company to warn members of professions that their ads might violate ethics codes. Customers are warned it can be misleading to tout themselves as “the best” at any particular job, and some licensed professionals, such as plumbers, are reminded to list their license numbers, as the law requires. In general, though, Cannanela says, “We can’t be responsible for ethical compliance of professionals. There are too many professions and they all have their own rules.” CONTRACTED TROUBLES According to the complaint against Moeller, the offending ad wasn’t one he created himself, but one he allowed his name to be included in. Under a contract he signed with American Estate Services Inc., of Dallas, he received referrals to do legal work for AES customers from 1996 to 1998. AES is in the business of creating revocable living trusts and annuities for clients around the country, and under the fee arrangement, Moeller would receive up to $200 for legal work on the documents. According to the complaint, the deal violated several ethical rules. First there was the ad sent by Moeller’s former firm, Wallace & Moeller, in Montague, N.J. The ad was sent in a legal size envelope that identifies the sender as the Estate Conservation Unit, with a Washington, D.C., address, as if it is from a government agency. The mailing mentions Moeller’s name — not his firm or his firm’s address — in violation of rules against accurate identification of firms that advertise, the complaint says. The complaint also says the advertisement — a pitch for revocable living trust preparation — was misleading because it said, “probate may cost a significant amount of money in legal and executor fees.” In fact, the complaint says, administration of revocable living trusts is virtually identical to the administration of an estate. The ad also said probate can “take months or even years before your estate is transferred to your family,” when in fact the process can be done quickly without an attorney, in a surrogate’s office, the complaint says. The complaint also says that Moeller’s work violated the committee’s Opinion 25, 153 N.J.L.J 1928 (1998), which sets out the rules governing the advertisement of revocable living trusts. Finally, the complaint says the fee arrangement with AES violated rules against paying fees to obtain clients. Moeller has not filed a formal answer to the complaint, but letters to the committee by his lawyer, Alan Silber, a partner with Newark, N.J.’s Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione, argued that Moeller did nothing wrong. First, Silber argued, revocable living trusts are, indeed, beneficial instruments for which cost-saving claims can be made. Second, the ads were clearly labeled “legal advertisement.” Third, Moeller always told customers they were free to hire another lawyer if they wanted. Fourth, customers who became dissatisfied with the offerings received a full refund, Silber told the committee. Finally, Silber said Moeller was not aware of Opinion 25, and as soon as he was, he phased out his trusts work. Silber said in an interview last week, “My client sincerely believed he was providing a valuable service to his clients and that he was disseminating information to the public that was not easily obtainable and was important.” “It was a gray area where there is no real guidance and regulation,” Silber said.

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