Lawyers make a case for advertising

Eric Seidel, a former TV reporter, performs in his video production studio as his intern Michael Duhig operates a makeshift Teleprompter inside Seidel’s Westshore office space in Tampa.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Eric Seidel, a former TV reporter, performs in his video production studio as his intern Michael Duhig operates a makeshift Teleprompter inside Seidel’s Westshore office space in Tampa.

Sit in front of a bunch of fake law books. Talk about what you can do for a viewer's personal injury case. Blah, blah, blah.

Brad Culpepper acknowledges that at first he and partner Brett Kurland had the same kind of TV ad as every other lawyer.

Then the pair thought a bit about what they liked to see on television: the cool-looking, stop-motion ads for TNT shows; the Detroit-set Chrysler commercial with Eminem's Lose Yourself percolating in the background; kinetic Quentin Tarantino movies such as Kill Bill and Reservoir Dogs.

Out came one of the most distinctive local TV lawyer ads in recent memory, featuring Culpepper and Kurland striding through the video to the syncopated groove of Battle Without Honor or Humanity, the song that sets up the coolest fight scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1.

They looked more like characters from a Mission: Impossible movie than lawyers.

And in a way, that was the point.

"Frankly, a lot of times you see an attorney and it's blah, blah, blah … you don't even remember who's talking," said Culpepper, a Florida native and former defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "We get all kinds of responses to the ads. But I tell you one thing: People notice them."

Viewers may have noticed something else: There are a lot more ads for lawyers than there used to be. As the economy has gotten worse and competition has increased, lawyers have responded by buying more ads on TV, radio and billboards.

Forget about that image of the old school lawyer who relies on word of mouth and the Yellow Pages. Today's attorneys are raised on MTV and a modern media culture, unable to remember the days when it was illegal for lawyers to advertise on TV. They are eager to market their brand on the most visible platform available.

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The Florida Bar Association tabulates every request made by a lawyer for advertising approval. The advertising must conform to detailed rules prohibiting, for example, celebrity spokespeople and any background sound other than instrumental music.

In the 2006-07 request period, 1,038 applications for radio and TV ads came in from across Florida. By the 2010-11 period, that number had jumped to 1,890, an 82 percent rise. The number of bar members over that same time rose only 12 percent, to about 91,000.

"There definitely has been an increase in lawyer advertising," said Elizabeth Tarbert, ethics and advertising counsel at the Florida Bar in Tallahassee. "We see more ads for things like bankruptcy, loan modification. That's connected to the economy. And with personal injury lawyers, people who rely on having a lot of cases run through their practice, they may have more of a need to advertise."

Rich Pegram, general manager at Tampa ABC affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28, also has noticed a rise in advertisements for lawyers, which now are among its Top Five advertiser categories. He cites the decline of the Yellow Pages, increased competition and lower rates from the media recession in 2009 as possible sparks for the trend, which he believes is more pronounced in Florida than other states.

"The categories are broader — they'll talk about Social Security, disability, taxes foreclosure — genres beyond people in a car wreck," Pegram said. "I think a lot of it is competition. If your competitor is on, you have to be here, too."

It's a bit of a reversal from the typical business cycle, where companies cut back on marketing during lean economic times. Instead, say some experts, lawyers feel pressure to advertise more, striving to stand out in a crowded pack filled with new faces and lawyer referral services.

"It's a gamble, but it's kind of a catch-22," said Rick Terrana, a Tampa lawyer who is considering a leap into the TV ad game. "If you don't do it, for guys who have that kind of practice, some lawyers are dying on the vine. If you do it, it costs a lot of money."

How much? Culpepper, who earned his law degree while playing pro football, estimated his firm spends over six figures a month for TV ads and billboards, with up to 30 billboards and enough ads to seem ubiquitous. "Hopefully, you're not going a week without seeing us," he quipped.

One of the pioneers in attorney TV ads, Orlando's John Morgan, pegs his annual advertising tab at $25 million, despite owning Practice Made Perfect, a media company in West Palm Beach that creates ads for his practice and other lawyers.

"When I opened up an office in Naples, I was spending $1 million a year, I was on the air three months and didn't sign a single case," Morgan said. "Most people either don't have the patience or don't have the money or don't have the nerve to do this right."

Morgan, who first started airing commercials a few years after a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed lawyers to advertise, sees the trend as generational. Old school lawyers may see ads as demeaning, but for 30- and 40-something attorneys who may have grown up watching his ads, such advertisements seem logical.

Added Terrana, "I think there remains two distinct groups of thought. The older guys and a lot of newer guys still think you impugn the integrity of the profession by cheapening yourself (with advertising). There's the other, high-tech school, which says this is just another business. Be it the legal profession, or the tire shop around the corner."

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Even as he talks, Eric Seidel is aware of the sweat spot underneath his left arm.

But until he finishes his short speech on a product recall — addressing a small camera with his lines scrolling across an iPad moonlighting as a TelePrompTer — he won't stop for a breather.

On a good day, Seidel records up to two dozen minute-long clips, warning viewers about product recalls, consumer scams and legal pitfalls. They won't air on the TV station where he worked for nearly 20 years as a law schooled consumer advocate, Tampa Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13.

Instead, Seidel has converted a conference room in his law office into a small TV studio, complete with "green screen" background so he can add any scenery he likes to his video recordings.

Since Seidel left WTVT to start his own law firm last year, he has focused on melding media with his law practice. He has created a host of short videos for his website and established Seidel Media, a company that develops videos and social media products for a range of clients.

"I had a relationship with viewers on Ch. 13 for nearly 20 years, so it's a natural to continue that relationship through television," he said. "From the beginning, that was the plan, to ride the wave of online media. You want to keep in touch with people, be their lawyer for their family and for the rest of their lives."

In an environment where a single 30-second ad space in WTVT's 6 p.m. or 10 p.m. news could cost upwards of $1,000, Seidel cuts his expenses by writing, producing, starring in and scheduling the ads himself. Soon, he'll have a website packed with videos offering tips on consumer issues, playing off his previous role as WTVT's consumer lawyer.

That's an idea Morgan had long ago, developing his media company to create ads for other attorneys (though never for two attorneys in the same market).

His rules are simple, warning lawyers who advertise to stay in for the long haul and never buy ads in sporting events.

"The decisionmakers in households are women, even though we represent more men than women," said Morgan, who wrote a book published in March, You Can't Teach Hungry. "Men watch TV, especially sports, like a Doberman on a lunge line; the remote is welded into their hands and the goal is to never watch a single commercial.

"(Lawyers) love to see themselves in the middle of a sporting event," the lawyer added. "But the only people who see it is them."

In the same way Morgan was inspired to advertise after seeing it work inside other law firms in the late 1970s, Culpepper and Kurland learned about advertising over five years working for Morgan & Morgan before heading out on their own.

These days, Morgan, Culpepper and Seidel all talk of focusing on the Internet. They work hard to tweak their websites and online advertising so their platforms are among the first you see when sorting through search engines for a lawyer. (One recent YouTube search for clips from the show Rocket City Rednecks produced a popup link to the website for Morgan's law firm.)

And, as usual, Morgan has a colorful answer for traditional attorneys who still look down on advertising, TV in particular.

"I would say, thank you very much and I hope you never do it," he said, laughing. "A lot of these guys who like to bite heels can't do it themselves, anyway. Let me keep getting the $95 million verdicts and we'll agree to disagree."

Lawyers make a case for advertising 11/24/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2011 9:51am]

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