Bar association works to put softer, friendlier face on maligned profession

Did you hear the one about the lawyer?

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During Tom Loftus' interview four years ago for a position as director of media and public relations with the Allegheny County Bar Association, the organization's board posed this question: "What are you going to do about lawyer jokes?"

  
Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette

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Mr. Loftus didn't squirm.

"Nothing," he recalled telling them.

Mr. Loftus landed the job, and though he still hasn't come up with a strategy to reduce the number of wisecracks made about lawyers, the Allegheny County Bar is very much trying to improve the lousy perceptions that surround the legal community.

The Pittsburgh-based bar is one of a number of state and local bar associations across the United States engaged in public campaigns that cast lawyers in a warm and positive light by highlighting how they help people and do good works.

"We've constantly heard about the negative perception of attorneys and what they do, because the bad apples get the publicity," said David Blaner, executive director of the Allegheny County Bar. "It's a fairly significant task to take on but it's become a high priority to address."

In a 2002 survey by the American Bar Association, only 19 percent of 450 individuals polled said they had extreme or high confidence in the legal profession. Lawyers ranked second-lowest in the study, just above the media, which garnered a vote of confidence from only 16 percent of those surveyed.

Some of the reasons lawyers aren't respected, according to the survey: They "are more interested in winning than seeing justice served;" "spend too much time finding technicalities to get criminals released;" and are "more interested in making money than in serving their clients."

Some of those perceptions are reinforced by legal advertising, much of which portrays lawyers as "out to squeeze every last nickel from their clients," said Ken Gormley, a Duquesne University law professor and incoming president of the Allegheny County Bar.

"It gives the impression of a used car salesman, of that kind of huckstering mentality rather than a true professional.

"I think it's not necessarily a fair caricature to create of lawyers, but I think it's to be expected once you get out there on every form of newspapers, television and phone books. There is a certain negative impression that comes with that."

There's also been a transformation in American communities that has altered the lawyer's image in recent decades, Mr. Gormley said.

"In the old days, the lawyer was the pillar of the community. He had an office downtown where you went for a will, a deed for your house, things that were most important to the average citizen. But with the growth of the suburbs and a transient population, you have to reach out now and not walk down the street to the local lawyer with the shingle. To reach out and trust someone is a difficult thing and it makes lawyers an easier target. People don't know them as well anymore."

With only about $50,000 allotted in its annual budget for image marketing, the Allegheny County Bar's campaign to date has been limited to low-cost efforts, including public service spots on a KDKA-TV morning show, a series of print ads in its membership journal that tout positive attorney qualities, and school outreach where attorney volunteers chat with students about issues such as bullying.

"Who better able to go into the schools and talk about how it stings a little when you are made fun of?" said Mr. Loftus.

The county bar tested commercials on KDKA and some cable outlets during a limited run in 2005 and hopes to increase its budget this year to buy more air time. It recently began airing a 30-second public service spot on Comcast cable that advises viewers how to retain an attorney.

On its newly designed Web site, www.acba.org, launched this week, the public can obtain answers to common legal questions about divorce and living wills as well as receive lawyer referrals and information on the bar's legal programs.

"The stereotype is that lawyers only want to represent the rich," said Mr. Loftus. That's why the bar's print ads feature children, senior citizens and minorities with taglines such as, "Today's attorney believes everyone deserves a great defense."

Mr. Loftus said he is not afraid of negative perceptions of lawyers. "The only way to address them is to talk about them," he said.

The Pennsylvania Bar Association is also tackling the image issue. It has retained a Philadelphia media consultant to create a three-commercial campaign that will air beginning in April on CBS television affiliates in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, an ABC affiliate in Erie, and on cable stations in central parts of the state.

The 30-second spots include a woman praising a lawyer for assistance in adopting a child; a man talking about how a lawyer protected the legal rights for his father who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease; and a woman describing how her lawyer helped her secure a loan for a greenhouse business.

The state bar -- with about $400,000 to spend on its campaign -- also plans radio spots and an improved Web site to get its message out.

"We're probably easy targets. We're probably seen as a profession where we're only looking for the bottom line," said Kenneth Horoho, president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and a partner with Pittsburgh law firm Goldberg, Gruener, Gentile Horoho & Avalli.

The bad lawyer image is reinforced by widespread publicity for cases such as the woman who sued McDonald's Corp. over a spilled cup of hot coffee, Mr. Horoho said.

"People saw that as frivolous. And then all of a sudden, people jump on the bandwagon and say the root of the problem is the lawyers."

Many politicians accused of corruption and misdeeds also are lawyers, reinforcing the negative impressions about the profession, he said.

"You see President Clinton, and senators, and congressmen getting the headlines and, depending on which party you're from, you might say, 'Hey, he's a lawyer, too.' "

In Wisconsin, the state bar association launched a positive image campaign after surveys in 1998 and 2000 showed its members' No. 2 request was to "do something about lawyers' public image," said Ann I. Brandau, a LaCrosse-based attorney who chairs the public image committee for the State Bar of Wisconsin.

An outside consultant developed a brand used in public service spots and in letterhead: "Wisconsin Lawyers. Expert Advisors. Serving You." Broadcast spots created for the campaign focused on lawyers attached to such community projects as Habitat for Humanity, volunteer fire companies and a new soccer park. One TV spot aired statewide during University of Wisconsin men's basketball games.

"I can't tell you exactly where we're at in terms of shifting public opinion," said Ms. Brandau, "Nobody knows. From the members' standpoint, not everyone was in love with this idea. Some said it was a waste of money; don't do it.

"But we decided we're in it for the long haul. Our budget last year was around $60,000 and this year we're asking for $60,000 to $80,000. And we're looking at re-doing a statewide survey to see if the public impression of lawyers has shifted."

Perhaps public perception of lawyers can improve with such campaigns, said Mr. Gormley.

"Once you can contain the jokes and highlight the positive things, it's kind of like freezing all the negative, surreal, cartoon pictures of lawyers and really working on the positive.

"One thing that's really true is that people love to poke fun at lawyers, but the minute they are in trouble, they turn to lawyers and they trust them,'' he said. "They see that in 90 percent of the cases, these are really first-rate people who have earned the degrees hanging up in their offices."

The Allegheny County Bar's Mr. Blaner has high hopes for the new campaign but doesn't expect the lawyer jokes to disappear.

"It's the nature of the profession. Are we going to all hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya?' No."


Joyce Gannon can be reached at jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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