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                                             92 N.J.L.J. 184
                                            March 20, 1969


Appointed by the New Jersey Supreme Court


Intermediaries - Publications - Advertising
Television Show with Questions and Answers

Question 1

            Inquiry is made as to whether it is ethical for an attorney guest panelist on a television program to answer particular legal questions asked by members of the audience during the program.

    A ten-program public information series is to be shown at different times on television by stations located in various large cities in the United States commencing in New York City with different New Jersey and New York attorneys as the guest panelists. The basic format of the program consists of professional actors improvising a skit, and the two guest attorneys and the program director commenting on the legal implications of the situations created in the scenes. Examples of the subject matter employed in the series are "The Out-of-State Divorce," "Buying a House," "The Need for a Will," "Consumer Transactions," "Your Rights on Arrest," and "What to do After an Accident." The attorneys are merely described as members of the bar of a particular state and there is no reference to their firms or to their addresses. They are paid an honorarium of $25 per performance. The program is sponsored by a nonprofit educational organization and a state bar association. The opening program of the series carries an oral disclaimer indicating the program is for public information only and indicating that a viewer with a particular problem should seek professional advice. Substantially the same disclaimer is printed on the screen and read by an announcer at the conclusion of each of the programs.
    The inquiries appear to involve Canons of Professional Ethics, Canon 27 - Advertising, Direct and Indirect; Canon 35 - Intermediaries; and Canon 40 - Newspapers. Drinker, Legal Ethics 264 (1953) states:
            It is believed that Canon 40 was designed primarily to sanction articles in law magazines or occasional articles in other publications and that it would be difficult if not impossible to conceive a daily, weekly, or monthly column in a newspaper or magazine devoted to the discussion of legal matters which would not, sooner or later, violate Canon 40 and also Canons 27, 35, and 47. What the readers of such columns want is not a general discussion such as they find in a law book or in an article in a law magazine, but something practical which they can apply to their own personal experience. Laymen usually are unable to formulate questions clearly to such a column and a lawyer answering such is apt to follow what he thinks his readers want to hear about and to answer the personal problem which he sees behind their questions. This is what the publishers will ultimately see that they get.

            While theoretically radio broadcasts might come within the principles under which legal articles are permitted under Canon 40, as a practical matter it is difficult to believe that such would not also violate Canons 27, 35 and 47; a fortiori would this be so as to a televised address.

    A.B.A. Comm. on Professional Ethics and Grievances, Opinion 270 (1945) involved an attorney who proposed to answer individual inquiries for legal advice through a newspaper column. The opinion
cited A.B.A. Comm. on Professional Ethics, and Grievances, Opinions
162 (1936) and 98 (1933), and held:
            These decisions clearly hold to be unethical the lawyer's participation in the writing of the column. We are of the opinion that such conduct does not escape the condemnation of Canons 35 and 40, because (1) the lawyer replying to the submitted questions is anonymous, (2) only questions of general public interest will be answered, (3) the reader will be cautioned not to rely on the published answer to his question as legal advice but to consult his attorney, and (4) the columnist will write with the approach of a lecturer rather than an adviser of legal rights.

            The column will be in essence one in which the lawyer undertakes to give advice for the benefit of inquirers in respect of their individual rights, which Canon 40 forbids. Finally, it does not meet the requirement of Canon 35 that the relations of a lawyer with those to whom he gives legal advice should be direct and personal and that this service must not be exploited by an intervening lay agency.

    Assn. of the Bar, City of N.Y., Committee on Professional Ethics, Opinion 501 (1939) holds that it would be unethical for an attorney conducting a written column in a publication to advise inquirers as to their legal rights although no compensation is received by the attorney for such services.
    Assn. of the Bar, City of N.Y., Committee on Professional Ethics, Opinion 529 (1949) holds it is proper for an attorney to conduct a radio program on legal matters involving questions and answers citing merely the point of law involved but not replying to personal questions.

    NJ. Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics, Opinion 122, 90 N.J.L.J. 849 (1967) held it is proper for an attorney to write articles or columns for publication but that he may not answer readers' questions which are submitted to him. This opinion cited A.B.A. Comm. on Professional Ethics and Grievances, Opinion 162 (1936).
    There is no distinction in the prohibition against answering the personal questions of individuals whether it be accomplished through the medium of a newspaper column, a magazine, a radio broadcast or a television program. In the glare of a television program, with untold numbers of viewers and members of the audience, it would not be possible for an attorney to establish a personal relation with a "client" who would remain a stranger to him. Canons of Professional Ethics, Canon 35.
    Canons of Professional Ethics, Canon 40 prohibits the advising of inquirers as to their individual rights in a publication, and this interdiction in spirit and intent would extend to a television program. The A.B.A. Committee on Professional Ethics and Grievances, Opinion 244 (1942), which is cited in N.J. Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics, Opinion 38 (1964), states:
            Canons of Legal Ethics can never receive the wholehearted acceptance and support of the Bar, which is essential to their enforcement, unless they be interpreted in accordance with their spirit and intent, in order to prevent the abusers at which they were obviously aimed, as distinguished from a technical or literal construction which would have them cover practices not generally regarded by the Bar as inherently improper or unethical.

The conduct proposed, as set forth in Question 1, would be a

violation of Canons of Professional Ethics, Canons 35 and 40.

Question 2

        Inquiry is made as to whether it is ethical for such attorney in response to a letter from a member of the audience, to accept a retainer and establish an attorney-
    client relationship.

    The receipt of the retainer by the guest attorney from a previously unknown member of the viewing audience would be convincing evidence that the television appearance, coupled with the pecuniary gain directly resulting therefrom, was a violation of Canons of Professional Ethics, Canon 27.

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