Jingles and professionalism

Posted by Julia Belian
Julia Belian
Associate Professor Julia Belian, although less than a century old herself, find
User is currently offline
on Saturday, 22 September 2012
in Faculty Blogs

Many things about Michigan surprised me when I first moved here four years ago, including the fact that I could still be so surprised - the big-box stores and fast-food chains had made me think every town had become a kind of bland Everywheretown, with little variation from place to place. I had not been a resident for more than a few hours, however, before I was on the phone telling a family member that Michigan was a land in which local jingles were still being written and used in TV and radio advertising.

If you're from around here, I'm sure you know the ones I mean.  Empire Carpet, Hansons, even the characteristic sentimental music backing up Tim Allen's narration for Pure Michigan, local jingles are alive and well in Michigan.  That's simply not true everywhere.  I thought it would be easy to find statistics to back up that claim, but even though I can't produce documented numbers, everyone I've asked who is not from Michigan has, so far, agreed with me: Michigan radio and TV will infect you with more earworms than just about anywhere else, especially here in the 21st Century.

So I probably shouldn't have been surprised when I first heard the very catchy commercial for a bankruptcy attorney in Warren, "Rita K."  But I was.  I grew up in the era when cigarettes still got lots of air time, but doctors and lawyers did not. By and large it is still true that lawyers sell their business on the basis of reputation, which is hard and slow to build and easy and quick to lose.  Many people still harbor an uneasy sense that lawyer ads are, well, unseemly.

In addition, although lawyer advertising has been permitted for a quarter of a century, lawyer ads have not shown a lot of creativity to date.  Do a search for "lawyer commercial" on youtube and you'll see what I mean.  Most feature the kind of stock approach that shows up on some channels all the time and on almost every channel if you're up late enough.  By and large, they seem largely uniform and predictable.

There are some real reasons for such ads to fall within limited parameters, of course.  Lawyer advertising is permitted, but is regulated in every jurisdiction, some more than others.  The Model Rules of Professional Responsibility (particularly those in Section 7) require that "public communication" about lawyer services may not be "fraudulent, misleading, or deceptive," and they set forth a variety of definitions and limitations that clarify and detail the kind of practices that might run afoul. 

None of those rules prohibit catchy tunes, however, and after watching the "Rita K" commercial several times over, I am more or less satisfied (as a non-expert, mind you), that she probably is within the permitted limits, so long as we don't think it deceptive or misleading for the jingle to exhort viewers to "Start your smile / while you file / bankruptcy today."  The commercial is creative, the tune is hard to get out of your head, and it seems very unlikely that anyone would mistake the law offices of "Rita K" for any of the countless firms with pounding gavels, somber suited solicitors, and relieved clients.

Does it matter that the commercial makes debt relief sound almost fun?  Rationally, I don't see why it should.  And yet, I wonder what lawyers think.  Do we sell services that are really just like carpet installation and home repairs? 

The practice of law is usually categorized as a "profession."  We have to think through what that means, for ourselves individually and for the industry as a whole, before we can answer that question.

For me, the jury is still out.

About the author

Julia Belian

Associate Professor Julia Belian, although less than a century old herself, finds deep satisfaction in learning and teaching the ancient roots and contemporary twists of Property Law and Estates & Trusts, which are also her primary areas of scholarship. Before joining UDM in the fall of 2008, Belian served as a Visiting Associate Professor of Law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City from 2006-2008, where she was given the Tiera Farrow Faculty Award by the Association of Women Law Students and was also named Most Outstanding Professor by the Graduating Class of 2008. From 2002 to 2006, Belian was on the faculty at Creighton University School of Law in Omaha, Nebraska.

Belian’s higher education began in her native Texas, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy cum laude in 1980 from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. She worked as an editor at a mid-sized daily newspaper for nearly ten years before earning a Master of Divinity degree at Yale University in 1993 and her J.D., with distinction, at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1996. At Emory, Belian served as Editor-in-Chief of the Emory International Law Review, received the Clark Boardman Callaghan Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Law School, and was elected to the Order of the Coif. She has practiced in both Minnesota (Faegre & Benson, LLP) and California (Morrison & Foerster, LLP), with most of her experience in the fields of estate planning and exempt organization law.