120 N.J.L.J. 1112
December 10, 1987
The Committee has received an inquiry from a law firm that
would like to advertise on a billboard. The billboard would
contain the firm's name, address, and telephone number. It would
also contain a short phrase designed to attract public attention
and indicating that the firm handles personal injury cases. A
statement that an initial consultation is free might be included as
well. The inquirer asks whether the message and, more importantly,
the medium are permissible under the Rules of Professional Conduct.
The propriety of billboard advertising draws sharply into focus the significant change resulting from In the Matter of the Petition of Felmeister and Issacs, 104 N.J. 515 (1986). That case involved a challenge to the then existing RPC 7.2(a), which required, inter alia, that all advertisements be presented in a dignified manner without the use of drawings, animations, dramatizations, music, or lyrics. After carefully reviewing this standard, the Court concluded that "the total prohibition against 'drawings...' etc., is unwise; furthermore, at least as applied to print advertising, it is unconstitutional." Id. at 517.
The Court did not, however, eliminate all restrictions on advertisements. Rather, it balanced the significant societal benefits that advertising promotes against the perceived harms resulting from unrestricted advertising. The Court primarily feared that consumers would select counsel based on the manner of presentation rather than the competency of the lawyer or the quality of the legal services provided. Id. at 525-28.
In order to control non-rational appeals to consumers, the Court amended RPC 7.2(a) to require that all advertisements now be predominantly informational. In Felmeister, the Court explained this new standard as requiring "that in both quantity and quality, the communication of factual information rationally related to the need for and selection of an attorney predominates." Id. at 528. This explanation has also been embodied in RPC 7.2(a):
No advertisement shall rely in any way on techniques to obtain attention that depend upon absurdity and that demonstrate a clear and intentional lack of relevance to the selection of counsel; included in this category are all advertisements that contain any extreme portrayal of counsel exhibiting characteristics clearly unrelated to legal competence.
The proposed billboard advertisement does not contain any information that would be violative of the above rule. Indeed, the information being presented is precisely that which the Court recognized as traditionally disseminated through print advertising. Id. at 104 N.J. at 528-29.
The proposed medium of advertising--a billboard--merits particular scrutiny. However, the Committee can discern no reason why a billboard cannot serve as a predominantly informational source of advertising about the availability of legal services. The principles and constraints that govern other forms of print advertisements are equally applicable, as are enforcement mechanisms for false, misleading, or non-rational advertisements.
In reaching this result, the Committee must emphasize that it is only considering printed billboard advertising. Electronic billboards, and particularly those on which action advertisements can be displayed, may present special problems similar to those involved with advertisements on television. Felmeister, 104 N.J. at 529; RPC 7,2(a). Such electronic advertisements are not at issue in this inquiry.