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Strong Case for Ads : Attorneys Now No. 1 Advertisers in County Phone Directories

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Need a lawyer to do the talking? Let your fingers do the walking.

In a frenzy of competition, Ventura County’s legal community has become the biggest advertiser in local telephone directories, enticing prospective clients with promises of clever defenses, affordable rates, bigger settlements--even immediate cash.

“Results!” boasts one ad. “Most experienced,” another claims. One ad uses a baby’s picture to promote adoptions, while three ads seek born-again business with the fish-like Christian symbol.

Attorney ads account for 7% of the pages in the Pacific Bell Yellow Pages for Ventura County, having mushroomed from 47 pages last year to 62 in the 1991-92 book. That’s twice as many as the next-largest category: physicians.

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GTE directories show similar increases, with 80 pages of attorney ads in the Oxnard phone book this year compared to 58 last year. In the Thousand Oaks GTE book, lawyer ads increased from 40 pages to 50.

And while many attorneys consider it bad taste to run anything more than a fine-print listing, a growing number of lawyers have decided that big display ads are the way to stand out in an area that some say has too many attorneys. Last year, there were no full-page ads for attorneys in the Pacific Bell book; this year, there are 15. One firm has a two-page ad.

“Attorneys are one of our most popular headings,” said Nancy Swasey, a Pacific Bell spokeswoman. “It’s what we call a well-developed market--lots of folks advertising, lots of large advertisements.”

The growth is remarkable since lawyers gained the right to advertise only 14 years ago. At the time, some bar leaders feared that the profession would be demeaned by vulgar ads making wild claims.

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“The thought was that nobody who’s a good attorney would advertise,” said Bartley S. Bleuel, president of the Ventura County Bar Assn. “The good old boys thought it was tacky. Maybe it is. But we’re not out there to starve. It’s a business, and we have to treat it like a business.”

Bleuel and several other attorneys see a distinction, however, between phone-book ads and those omnipresent television commercials out of Los Angeles that exhort viewers to file suits and all but promise big payoffs.

“The guys on TV look like ambulance chasers,” said Ventura attorney John H. Howard, who specializes in personal-injury cases. “They are appealing to people who may not even have considered using a lawyer.”

By contrast, he said, “the Yellow Pages are geared toward people who are already in the market for an attorney. It may be the only way consumers have to find one.”

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About his own quarter-page ad, Howard said, “All I wanted to put forth was what I do, my name and my number. If somebody is looking for a criminal attorney, there’s no point in calling me.”

Attorney Keith M. Carter’s quarter-page ad emphasizes the criminal-law side of his practice. It notes that he speaks Spanish and that the initial consultation is free.

“I think all that is extremely valuable to the consumer,” Carter said. “The old rules were, frankly, ridiculous. . . . On the other hand, some folks carry it too far.”

But how far is too far?

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Is it crossing the line to assert that “insurance companies are willing to pay us larger settlements,” as attorney Lawrence M. Schulner does in a full-page ad?

“I stand by that,” Schulner said, adding that insurers know he is more willing than some other attorneys to take cases to trial, and therefore offer more to settle.

Is it hyperbole to promise “a successful defense in a hostile world,” as veteran criminal-defense attorney Richard W. Hanawalt does in his half-page, red-and-black ad?

“Of course it is,” Hanawalt said. “But success is measured in different ways. And the ‘hostile world’ bit is certainly true. . . . That’s what we do with judges and juries--hyperbole. If properly used, it creates an image. Image is 90% of the legal profession.”

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Is it tacky for a lawyer who handles adoptions to picture himself with a baby in one arm and a briefcase in the other, as attorney Richard C. Loy does?

“People give me trouble about it,” Loy said. “But it’s no longer enough to just put your name in there and expect people to flock to you by name association.”

Is it bad form for bankruptcy lawyers to use illustrations of harried people staring at bills or for personal-injury attorneys to use drawings of banged-up people to call attention to their ads, as Ventura attorney Chris Gautschi does in a full-page ad? How about ads that seek out Christian clients by featuring the fish-like symbol known as an ichthus, such as that of the firm of Berglund & Johnson?

“It depends on the attorney and what they’re doing,” said Barbara Brown of the Murphy Organization, an Oxnard advertising agency. “It may work for those attorneys.”

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But she said the two law firms she represents specialize in corporate law and tend to go for brochures and other forms of image-building. “They don’t necessarily want the kind of client who would look them up in the Yellow Pages.”

Indeed, Ventura County’s biggest corporate law firms--including Benton, Orr, Duval & Buckingham; Cohen, England & Whitfield; Nordman, Cormany, Hair & Compton--are content to have tiny, small-print ads in the Yellow Pages.

“IBM doesn’t go through the Yellow Pages to find corporate counsel,” said Mike Percy, an attorney with the Oxnard-based firm, Cunningham & Lansden.

Bleuel, the bar association president, agreed.

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“None of these ads say ‘I’m going to draft a contract for you,’ ” he said. “They’re catering to the type of attorney who services personal issues rather than business issues.”

Percy said the phone book is extremely effective in attracting clients who need his firm’s specialties: family law, bankruptcy and personal injury. The firm has 11 offices statewide, Percy said, and the newer locations depend on the Yellow Pages for practically all their business.

“Generally speaking, this is how we get clients” at those locations, Percy said. Carter estimated that about one-third of his business comes from his phone-book ads.

Criminal-defense lawyers are among the heaviest phone-book advertisers, but some have bucked the trend.

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“I decided that word-of-mouth was probably the best advertising that I could get,” said Oxnard attorney Joseph D. O’Neill Jr., who has a one-inch-deep ad. “I just feel that anybody facing a potential jail sentence would be foolish to go by an advertisement.”

By all accounts, the Yellow Pages is the only significant forum for attorney advertising in the county.

“The phone book tends to be the main thing,” Schulner said. “Nothing else works.”

But it’s not cheap. Swasey of Pacific Bell said the rate varies with each directory, but a full-page ad without color typically costs $1,000 per month.

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“It’s not just a slight business expense anymore,” said Loy, the attorney whose ad included a friend’s baby. “It’s a very large part of any attorney’s overhead, if they are advertising.”

Schulner agreed. “I hate it. It’s too expensive. It’s a treadmill you can’t get off of,” he said. “But I think it serves an appropriate public purpose. The public has no knowledge of a lawyer’s expertise or qualifications. I think a lawyer has a duty to advertise.”

Bleuel said one factor in the advertising boom is the surplus of attorneys, both statewide and in Ventura County. The county has about one attorney for every 1,000 residents.

“How could you live if you were one attorney in a town of 1,000 people?” Bleuel said. “There would not be that much demand for legal services.”

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Even with government agencies employing several hundred attorneys in Ventura County, he said, “Some attorneys haven’t been able to make it.”

He said his practice, which concentrates on business, estate and tax law, relies mostly on referrals. “But I do get a significant number of estate planning and tax-collection problems through the Yellow Pages,” said Bleuel, who has several small directory listings under his specialties.

But he said he has no quarrel with attorneys whose area of law is more consumer-oriented. “If I’m out there detailing cars, I have to let people know that I’m detailing cars,” he said. “It’s the same with attorneys.”

And several attorneys said consumers have benefited from the increased competition.

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“Attorneys are having to be much more competitive in their pricing, because it’s easier to shop around,” Loy said. “Some traditionalists look at the ads and want to vomit. But attorneys are far too image-conscious anyhow. They ought to be more service-conscious.”

As bar association president, Bleuel said, “I would rather see ads that are more informative than flashy. I realize ads can be misleading and crass. But it’s better than the alternative of no ads.”

Howard agreed that it was worse in the old days, before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that the ban on lawyer advertising violated the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee.

“I think the First Amendment is more important than anything,” Howard said.

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“What I see lawyers doing on TV offends the hell out of me. It’s a horrible thing, I think, for lawyers in general. But the damage to the profession is worth it if the alternative is a diminishing of the First Amendment.”


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