You’ve probably seen their ads on television or the radio. They tout themselves as more than just attorneys — they’re “The Advocates.”
The TV spots often feature a guy hiking or camping or spending time with his family. Then a phone call comes in, and he drops everything to help an injured client.
On the radio, a disc jockey might tell listeners about how the Utah personal injury law firm is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or one of their lawyers explains how they are different than a regular law firm.
It’s a dispute over these “live” radio ads that have led the law firm Driggs, Bills & Day to file a federal lawsuit Monday against their own regulators — the Utah State Bar.
The lawsuit details a disagreement over whether the ads are a violation of judicial rules that say what lawyers can and cannot do when advertising for clients.
Bar officials have been investigating whether The Advocates have violated those rules by featuring “celebrity endorsements” from radio personalities, according to the lawsuit, and have threatened disciplinary action against the firm’s attorneys.
But the law firm contends that the live ads are protected speech and that they have not violated lawyers’ rules in any way. They add that the threat of a disciplinary action from the Bar “chills” the firm’s speech by “causing them to hold back updated live ads.” And if the firm is required to remove their radio ads, the lawyers argued, they will go to the bottom of the list of advertisers hoping to pay for secure prime spots.
The lawsuit asks a federal judge to ban the Bar from disciplining the law firm for its radio ads by finding their rules violates lawyers’ First Amendment rights.
Bar officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit says the firm does not only provide legal services to its clients, but “also return[s] normalcy” to their clients‘ lives in other ways, like giving rides to the airport or arranging for car repairs.
“Advertising plays a critical role,” the lawsuit reads, “in informing the public of available options when selecting an attorney, and what the differences are in legal representation, better equipping the public to make an informed decision.”
The lawyers say a significant amount of their business comes from advertising, particularly through live radio ads.
The ads are often read as part of a scheduled radio show, and are read by a radio personality.
Some ads consist of a radio personality reading a script, others a radio DJ asking lawyer Matthew Driggs about his firm. But the lawyers contend that all of the ads “convey truthful facts, in an honest, straightforward way” and do not violate the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct.
But the lawsuit alleges that in November 2016, the Bar’s Office of Professional Conduct told the firm that it had opened an investigation into The Advocate’s advertising practices — particularly its radio ads.
The OPC investigators cited an opinion from the Bar’s ethics advisory committee that found lawyers violated attorney rules if they use ”celebrity endorsements” in their advertising. According to the lawsuit, the Bar has indicated that they intend to bring disciplinary proceedings against Driggs and his firm.
“Any disciplinary proceedings brought by the [Utah State Bar] will permanently and irreparably damage Mr. Driggs’ reputation,” his attorney wrote, “even if the case is later resolved in Driggs’ favor or dismissed.”
The Bar’s process for investigating disciplinary issues is largely secret, and documents do not become public record unless a lawyer is referred to the courts for discipline. No attorney discipline cases have been filed against The Advocates’ lawyers as of Tuesday.
No court dates have been immediately set in the federal lawsuit.
Editor’s note: Michelle Quist Mumford serves as a Utah State Bar commissioner and is a named defendant in the pending federal lawsuit. She is also a member of the Tribune editorial board.