Ethics Dunce: Innovative Legal Marketing

Would "Seinfeld's" Jackie Chiles be a worse spokeperson for lawyers than Arnie Becker? Hmmmm...

L.A. Law’ Actor Corbin Bernsen, whom we originally got to know as priapic divorce attorney Arnie Becker on the old TV lawyer series  “L.A. Law,” was recruited in 2009, fifteen years after “L.A. Law” went to re-run heaven, to serve as the paid spokesperson for Innovative Legal Marketing, a Virginia-based company providing marketing services for lawyers and law firms. Now Bernsen has filed a lawsuit claiming he’s owed more than $668,000 after the company allegedly breached its contract and dropped him.

I have no idea whether Bernsen or the marketing firm has the law on its side in the suit, but I do know this: for a legal services marketing firm to recruit the actor who played Arnie Becker to promote legal services is an implicit insult to the legal profession and the intelligence of the public.

Never mind the fact that Bernsen, who is bald, thick, and looks much older than his 57 years, bears no resemblance to the blond babe-magnet he played on the 80’s series, making his choice questionable on other grounds. The character he played was an unethical lawyer who, among other slimy conduct, regularly had sex with his female clients. This was a serious professional ethics violation then, and in no small part due to the bad image of divorce lawyers conveyed by Arnie Becker, was made an explicit ethics violation by California, Oregon, New York and other states, culminating in the American Bar Association recommending a direct prohibition on lawyer-client sex in 2003. The various rules are sometimes referred to in the legal ethics world as “the Arnie Becker rules.”

Of all the fictional lawyers who have paraded before our weary eyes as regular characters on television dramas over the last 40 years—and there are at least a hundred of them, none was sleazier or a worse representative of the profession than Arnie Becker. Was the sudden realization of this by Innovative Legal Marketing the reason Bernsen’s contract was cut short? I hope so. Whether it was or not, however, for a company that engages in marketing the legal profession to choose the face of a fictional legal slime-ball as its spokesperson, even for a second, suggests a serious deficit in its comprehension of what should matter most to anyone seeking a lawyer: trust.

Maybe sacking Bernsen is an indication that the company better understands the standards of the profession it promotes. If it takes $668,000 to drive the lesson home, it’s worth it.

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