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Under pressure from the legislature, The Florida Bar is prosecuting the Fort Lauderdale law firm that runs the notorious 1-800-PIT-BULL advertisements as part of a stepped-up campaign against aggressive lawyer ads. That firm’s lawyers are among 203 lawyers throughout the state that The Bar currently is prosecuting for violating the Florida Supreme Court’s rules governing lawyer advertising, which are considered among the toughest in the country. Most attorneys under investigation practice in the areas of personal injury, traffic tickets and bankruptcy. Following a complaint from a lawyer, a Bar grievance committee in August 2003 found probable cause that the series of TV and print ads run by the personal injury firm Chandler & Pape — featuring a drawing of a fierce-looking pit bull wearing a spiked collar — violated Supreme Court advertising rules. According to Bar counsel Randi Klayman Lazarus, who is prosecuting the case, the image of a pit bull “is not objectively relevant because it is not informational and it is manipulative because it appeals to the emotions of the consumer, as the pit bull is commonly perceived as aggressive, unrelenting, loyal and determined.” The Bar will try the case against the law firm before Broward County Court Judge William Herring, who will serve as referee. Chandler & Pape, which continues to use the pit bull image in ads, letterhead, envelopes, business cards and T-shirts, defends the image. “The American pit bull terrier is an animal that engenders the principles that characterize our law firm: strength, tenacity and loyalty,” John Pape wrote in an Aug. 27, 2003, letter to the Bar. “As such, the logo speaks to the issues of integrity and whether we will zealously represent our clients.” The firm is also continuing to use the 1-800-PIT-BULL number, which it bought for more than $1,000 from a California collection agency. But critics, led by state Rep. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, new Bar president Kelly Overstreet Johnson, and other prominent attorneys around the state, say such ads demean the legal profession and damage the public image of lawyers. Simmons, an attorney, sponsored an unsuccessful House bill this spring that would have sharply restricted lawyer advertising. “Somehow, images of Webster, Darrow, Marshall and Cox disappear when I am told of a television ad that suggests good legal counsel can be obtained by simply dialing 1-800-PIT-BULL,” said state Sen. Rod Smith, D-Gainesville, who’s a lawyer, at the Bar’s annual meeting last month. On the other hand, the state Supreme Court in May approved advertising rule changes that significantly loosened ad restrictions. One key change is that attorneys now may use noncelebrity actors and other nonlawyers in broadcast commercials — a freedom long sought by some lawyers to add zest to their often stiff ad spots. The new rules ratified recommendations issued 18 months ago by the Bar’s standing committee on advertising. Many attorneys who advertise say Florida’s lawyer advertising rules are far too complex and subjective. They also say the rules hamper them in competing against accountants and other professions who face no advertising restrictions, and also in competing against law firms from other states that work under looser rules. The new Supreme Court rule changes won’t affect existing Bar disciplinary cases against attorneys, said Ken Marvin, the Bar’s director of lawyer regulation, and some lawyers are adopting a wait-and-see attitude about just how much freedom the new rules will create. MILD SANCTIONS The Florida Bar has eight staff attorneys scrutinizing thousands of lawyer print and broadcast ads each year. They consider a broad and highly detailed list of factors, such as the color and type of backdrop, and the font size of the disclosures. Law firm ads are supposed to be submitted to the Bar for approval by the date the ad runs, though the Bar review frequently occurs after the ads have run. In contrast, in some states, lawyers are allowed to run TV commercials showing re-enacted auto crashes complete with sound effects. So far, however, The Florida Bar’s penalties against violators of its advertising rules have been relatively mild. The sanctions imposed so far have included “rehabilitation” at a Bar advertising training course, requiring lawyers to submit ads for pre-approval for one year and public reprimand. No attorney in Florida has ever been suspended or disbarred for illegal advertising, Bar records show. Maria Sperando, a partner at Gary Williams Parenti Finney Lewis McManus Watson & Sperando in Stuart who filed a complaint last year against Chandler & Pape, complains that the Bar is too easy on advertising rules violators. “The sanctions should be severe enough to be a deterrent to lawyers,” she said. Even so, there are less tangible professional consequences. Steven Dell, whose personal injury firm Dell & Schaefer settled a Bar complaint last month alleging that his firm improperly used the image of a wrecked car with a deployed air bag, is still bristling. “Just having our integrity questioned by the Bar is tremendously deflating,” Dell said. “Being singled out by the Bar is taken very seriously in this profession.” The Bar claimed the photo was “manipulative, deceptive and misleading” and also charged the firm with using too small a type size for the stock disclosure all attorneys must include. Some other South Florida firms that recently faced allegations of ad violations include Brett and Mitchell Panter of the Miami firm Panter Panter & Sampedro and Hollywood solo practitioner Jason Alexander Diamond. The Panters, prominent personal injury lawyers, were cited for using an image of a panther, printing the required disclosure is print that was too small and failing to disclose that legal costs are extra for consumers. Diamond was cited for sending direct mail pieces promising that ticket recipients would receive no penalty points and no court hearing, with a money-back guarantee. While arguing that the panther is simply a harmless logo, the Panters have apologized to the Bar and already have changed all their ads, eliminating the panther logo. However, the Bar still filed formal charges in the Supreme Court on June 28 and plans to try the case. The lawyers did not return calls for comment. The Bar is particularly concerned with cases like Diamond’s that involve allegations that a law firm misled the public, the Bar’s Marvin said. “What’s worse than 1-800-PIT-BULL to us?” Marvin said. “Making false representations.” The Bar also takes a harsh view of repeat violators. ‘PUSHES THE ENVELOPE’ The case against Chandler & Pape began with a 2001 complaint by then-Bar president Tod Aronovitz. Most ad violation cases result from complaints by other attorneys. “I found the ad to be reprehensible,” Aronovitz said in an interview. “It more than pushes the envelope.” In December 2001, a Bar grievance committee found the ads were “not consistent with the high standards of our profession,” but it did not find probable cause and dismissed the complaint. Then, last year, Sperando filed another complaint. “I feel these ads are very deleterious to attorneys’ reputation and standing in the mind of the public,” Sperando said. It took repeated calls to get the Bar to reopen the investigation, she added. Chandler & Pape has hired Tim Chinaris, immediate past chair of the professional ethics committee of The Florida Bar and a law professor at the Appalachian School of Law in Virginia, as an expert witness. “I don’t think we’ve done anything wrong,” Chandler said in an interview. “The Bar says ads reduce public perception of lawyers. I don’t buy it. I think what reduces perception of lawyers is bad practice of law.” Chandler said most complaints about his firm’s ads are made by lawyers who are worried about the competitive impact on their own practices. Advertising has definitely helped his practice. “I’ve gotten some huge cases from advertising,” he said. The Broward lawyer contends younger, up-and-coming lawyers need to advertise while well-established lawyers, who get their business largely through referrals, don’t need to and tend to disapprove of it. READY FOR A FIGHT Steven Dell insists that the Bar allegations that his firm violated ad rules by running a photo of a wrecked car in its Yellow Pages ad were unfair. He said he agreed to the reprimand only to avoid a trial. It wasn’t the first time Dell, who tries to stay “on the forefront” of lawyer advertising with creative promotions, was cited by the Bar for what he calls “minor violations.” “That car happened to be owned by a real client,” he said. “At the time, we tried very, very hard to comply with Bar rules. We felt the car was reasonably connected with the law.” Under his firm’s agreement with the Bar, it promised use a different Yellow Pages ad next year, to submit the ad to the Bar 60 days ahead of time next year for pre-approval and to attend a rehabilitation seminar. But Dell seems to be gearing up for another fight. His firm recently spent a lot of money shooting new ads — the subject of which he wants to keep secret from competitors who, he said, love to copy him. “We will do what it takes, short of suing,” he said. Plantation solo practitioner Darren Blum, who runs radio and TV ads trolling for clients victimized by “stockbroker fraud,” said he understands why the Bar would go after false or misleading ads but can’t fathom why they are targeting ads for being in bad taste. “It’s still a business, like selling soap or sandwiches,” Blum said. “The public already thinks lawyers are scumbags — until they need one. Then they want the biggest scumbag of all.”

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