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Lawyers and Truth in Advertising

“DA-AAAD!! Who would ever want to hire a lawyer who needs advertising?!?”

That’s the punch line. Now, here’s the joke: for over a decade, our little law firm had served as the primary public defenders for Island and San Juan Counties. It was tough work, riding ferries at 4 a.m. between the islands during huge winter storms, answering emergency calls in the middle of the night for months on end giving advice to alleged drunk drivers, handling giant murder cases that dragged on forever for $400 a pop, trying every major case that came along while the private guys quietly gouged their clients with exorbitant fees before pleading them guilty without first mastering their cases (my wife told me to put “J/K” after that, but I’m not.)


Still, we loved what we did; I like to think of public defense as practicing pure law. I know that not everyone sees it that way, but if you really think about it, when you are a public defender, money is not your main concern. You know that you won’t get paid what you are worth so you get used to it. Instead, you focus on the actual work: the legal representation of your clients. You never (as in never ever) have to talk to clients about paying you. Because they don’t. Instead, the government begrudgingly pinches a few pennies your way, no doubt left over from their huge road improvement fund, from which kickbacks for local officials are laundered (j/k).

All this self-sacrifice and crusading for underdogs can make you a bit self-righteous. We used to sit in court and mock the “private guys”. They never knew which forms to fill out as they pranced around court acting as if they owned the place, yet unsure of where to sit. We were merciless in our backstabbing. Which is why I go to great lengths now that I am one of those lame private guys to show some respect for the PD’s. As I have said repeatedly in this blog, they are often the most knowledgeable people in the room, especially about the local court culture. You’d be amazed how much that varies from court to court.

Eventually the lack of funding made it impossible for us to handle only appointed cases, so we branched out. We started taking private cases since we had to pay our bills. I want to state right here that we work very hard to be fair and reasonable with our fees now that we are private. My hourly rate is way less than many lawyers out there with half of my experience, to be frank. Just yesterday I talked to a frantic parent about their kid for over an hour. For free. I just can’t help myself sometimes, even if my wife (and law partner) makes me repeat after her occasionally, like a little kid, “We do not work for free.” But it sure makes it easier when you do. You worry about the cases, not the unpaid invoices.

So it was with much trepidation that years ago we bought our first Yellow Pages ad. As advertising “newbies” we were able to get a huge discount on the entire back cover of the phone book (remember those?). We spent hours worrying about it, trying to come up with a design and message that did not embarrass us. No popping wheelies on motorcycles on late night TV for us. No. Instead we created an antique scroll, invoking ancient legal texts, with a “Client Bill of Rights” handwritten on it. Rights like being billed fairly and having lawyers who were dedicated to their case. We were so proud of the finished product.

Until I showed it to my seven year old son. He took one look and uttered that phrase, “Who would ever want to hire a lawyer who needs to advertise?!?” I blanched. Cut to the quick by a kid. Typical.

He was right.

That kid is now in law school, but that’s another story. The fact is that in the two decades since we bought that ad everything has changed – and it makes me sick to my stomach. Lawyers used to have some class. Say what you will, there were standards. We went to enormous lengths to be accurate and truthful about our back cover, to only say what we could back up. Not write checks we couldn’t cash, as my Dad used to say.

Today? Not so much. Lawyers brag and exaggerate and embellish with impunity. Not about their clients. About themselves. I was in court recently when a young lawyer was acting just like those lame private guys I remember from the old days. Lost in the courtroom, unable to fill out an Omnibus Application, something so simple a chimpanzee could do it. He needed help and the old PD in me felt compelled to assist. He was so grateful and gave me his card.

When I got back to the office I checked out his website. There, all over the Internet he was, proclaiming himself the “best new lawyer” in Seattle, complete with (no doubt) fake client reviews. A guy who had trouble filling in blanks on a form is the best criminal lawyer in Seattle? Not. So. Much.

It’s everywhere. My personal favorites are the web addresses, ones like: “BestLawyerInTheWorld.com” In the old days the Bar Association would have sanctioned you for that. It is unethical to make such claims. Now? It is very clear to me that the Bar has given up, abdicated their responsibility to keep lawyers honest when it comes to advertising. Why? Simple. They can’t keep up with the deluge of false and puffed up advertising. Its all over the Internet.

The fact is that lawyers who don’t have much work have tons of time to invade Google with information about themselves. The less real legal work they are doing the more time they have to take advantage of all the social media and Internet exposure that is out there just waiting for them. I know that could be said about blogging, but I really do try to talk about interesting or useful things. I avoid calling myself the best, even if it’s true. J/K! Not really.

So, there it is. My rant against my fellow lawyers, the ones who spend more time on self-promotion than they do representing their clients properly. Sorry guys. It just makes me so crazy I could scream.

But I don’t. It would do no good. No one would listen. But I wish someone would do something about it. Which is why I am writing this; to warn people. Don’t believe everything you read. Especially online. Especially when it’s a lawyer’s advertising.

Before you place your trust (and life) in the hands of a lawyer, dig down. Ask questions. What kinds of cases have they handled? How did those turn out? What will the lawyer do or not do or be able to do or not do? What is their prior experience with cases like yours?

Oh, and one last, VERY IMPORTANT thing. If a lawyer ever promises a particular result in a particular case (e.g. “I can win this trial for sure.”) TURN AND RUN AWAY. There is no way that some of the promises I see lawyers making on line are legit. Or ethical. Or correct. You can never ever predict the outcome of any kind of case worth hiring a lawyer for. IF you could then you probably don’t need a lawyer.

One final story about that particular issue, which demonstrates everything I am talking about here:

I once had a very serious case where my client was looking at over ten years in prison. We were still PD’s then. I negotiated a suspended sentence so long as my client did treatment. No jail. A typical lame self-promoting private lawyer whispered in this client’s ear that, for the relatively small sum of $5,000, he could win his case and he’d walk away a free man, with no need to do silly treatment. My client gathered his life savings together and accepted this lawyer’s offer. My former client is now half way through a thirteen year prison sentence.

I think about my son in law school. It is a very different world he is about to emerge into. Things have changed. I just hope he remembers what he said. But, after spending his life listening to me rant about this stuff, I know he will. After all, it was listening to him that made me that much more aware of what I was doing when we put out that first ad: asking people to trust us. And trust is something that begins with the truth, especially when it comes to lawyers and their advertising.


If you would like Craig Platt’s help with a legal issue, you can find his contact information here or fill out a confidential, easy form about your case.