Ethics Quiz! Richmond Law School’s “Cool” Ad: Lame, Deceitful…Or Just Advertising?

Richmond ad Richmond-Law-ad

So, what do you think? Such esteemed legal commentators as TaxProf Blog and Above the Law have mocked and condemned the above Richmond Law School ad directed at law school applicants deciding where to plant their hopes. “The clubhouse leader for the lamest law school ad of 2013” snarked the former. “Calling it “lame” or “uncool” or “hackneyed” or any of the other words in the English language that denote a distinct inability to appear genuine or interesting doesn’t do the ad justice,” declared the latter. Then there is the little matter of puffery, which usually means deceit, spin, or exaggeration, except that in advertising such lies (for that is what they are) are mostly accepted as part of standard practice. That employment within nine months stat cited is dubious in the judgment of those who feel only legal jobs should count–apparently Richmond Law includes jobs where a JD is considered an asset, but the graduates are not working as lawyers. (On the other hand, almost every  job I’ve had since I graduated from laws school has been in the “JD advantage” category, and I’m satisfied with the results.)

Kicking and screaming, the legal profession accepted advertising as ethical relatively recently (the late Eighties) after a series of court rulings declaring the prohibition of the practice by bar associations a First Amendment breach. Still, all state bars regulate what lawyers can say and how they can say it, some quite stringently. In Virginia, the rules say that lawyer ads must not be misleading, and up until two days ago, when the sentence was struck in a general overhaul of the advertising rules, declared that “advertisements and public communications should be formulated to convey information that is useful to a layperson in making an appropriate selection. Self-laudation should be avoided.” A fake text message exchange might well be found to be misleading, if it was in a lawyer’s ad for her own services. The assumption of virtually all bar lawyer advertising rules is that no one seeing such ads has ever seen an ad or TV commercial for any other product or service, and believes without question that what a lawyer’s ad says is literally true. I’m not kidding. Some state rules specifically forbid hyperbole and metaphors. In no state can a lawyer claim to be “the best” at anything, for example.

Of course, the rules against lawyer advertising do not apply to law school advertising. Shouldn’t they, though? Should not law schools embody the ethical standards of the profession they train?

Or is that standard outdated, unenforceable and silly? Self-laudation should be avoided? Seriously? What is modern advertising, if not self-laudation? The outrage expressed by legal profession critics  of the Richmond Law School ad is based on the presumption that the legal profession as a whole should be bound by higher standards in its advertising than car companies, soap manufacturers, presidential campaigns and Girls Gone Wild.

Your Ethics Quiz for this Gettysburg/Fourth of July Week is this:

Should it?


Sources and Graphic: Taxprof blog, Above the Law

7 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz! Richmond Law School’s “Cool” Ad: Lame, Deceitful…Or Just Advertising?

  1. Law schools should adhere to an even higher standard than lawyers. Their job is to teach people how to be lawyers.

    But why would a law school advertise anyway? Don’t kids just go to the best school they can get in to based on readily available ratings?

  2. Mostly, I see nothing wrong here – in fact, while I’m not blown away by the copywriting and think that it’s a little long, I think this ad does a good job of targeting its audience and communicating with it effectively (I’ll stipulate your point regarding the questionable employment stats and suggest that’s an area that might have been trimmed).

    Colleges and universities are competitive organizations and have marketed themselves for a very long time. We’re just not accustomed to seeing their promotional efforts presented like this (slickly produced application packets, underwriting public radio programming and other common approaches are effectively as promotional as TV advertising, but there’s long precedent for those, and people are comfortable with them).

    As long as the claims/key points of differentiation in the ad are backed up by fact, and assuming they are, I suspect the outrage is reactionary and based solely on the fact that no one in the market segment – law schools – has done something like this before. Which is a dumb reason to condemn something.

  3. I think this ad is absolutely appropriate to their audience. It’s creative and different and unappealing to the older generation – who have therefore condemned it. I agree with Arthur; the only downside is that it’s a little long. I lost interest half-way through; the “coif” punchline came too late.

      • I don’t think that TaxProf Blog and Above The Law are mocking the ad because they are biased against all advertising. After all, Above The Law has a lot of advertising right on the site. I think there are other things they find “uncool” about the ad.

        First, you get the feeling that the makers of the ad are trying to be cool. Often, when someone tries to be cool by doing what others do, it doesn’t work. It makes you seem like a poseur. It seems like they are using “textspeak” because that is what “the kids” are doing these days.

        Second, the ad seems like a variation of the old “two ladies in a kitchen” or “two men in a garage” advertisements (it is very rarely “two ladies in a garage” or “two men in a kitchen”), where you have two people having an artificial sounding conversation. Think “Mary, I can’t seem to get my kids to eat healthy snacks.”, “I had that problem too, until I found Monkman Brand Yoghurt. It has only 2.5g of fat and 32 essential vitamins in every serving”. This type of advertisement is tired.

        Finally, I think people mock the ad because I gather that Richmond Law School isn’t that prestigious. The two people discussing the Richmond Law in the ad discuss it in reverential tones (“Ur so not gonna get in”). This has about the same effect as a commercial featuring two people discussing a Hyundai as if it were a Porsche. The ad even draws attention to this incongruity with the last line “Dude! Richmond Law”, as if it is somehow surprising that Richmond Law is in the top 30 for employment at nine months.

  4. I have no problem with advertising by lawyers or law schools. I think it is a good thing if it encourages competition between lawyers and schools to charge lower fees or tuition or provide better client or student services.

    What I do have a problem with is deceptive advertising. I’m not referring to pure puffery, where the advertiser claims something that no reasonable person would believe. What i don’t like are statements that could lead a customer to make a decision based on a false inference based on the advertisement. For example, a statement that “Monkman’s Pretzels have 30% Less Fat*… * [In fine print] Than regular potato chips” could lead a customer to believe that Monkman’s Pretzels have 30% less fat than they used to, or than comparable pretzels. People looking at that claim without looking at the fine print would generally not be thinking about regular potato chips when considering the claim, so the claim is deceptive and, as far as I am concerned, unethical.

    I am not saying that Richmond Law School is doing this, but I think that claims about employment that leave out key details could therefore be unethical. In the United States (and Canada, for that matter), law school is a specialized degree that requires three years of education beyond an undergraduate degree. I would think, therefore, that what people who are applying to law school would be interested in would be the percentage of graduates that work as lawyers, not the percentage that got jobs.

    While I understand that not all people who go to law school eventually become lawyers, I find the use of a “JD Advantage” category problematic. The “JD Advantage” category includes a wide variety of jobs, for which the usefulness of a JD varies. For example, I would think studying tax law at law school would be useful for an accountant (though I am not an accountant, so I am not 100% sure). Nonetheless, while someone with a degree in accounting and in law might have an advantage over someone with just an accounting degree, that advantage might not be worth three years of study to obtain (years which could perhaps be put to better use studying accounting-specific topics, rather than getting a broad legal education).

  5. One of the reasons, I believe, that law schools have to push the JD factor is the volume of law graduates. When I graduated from law school in 1972, Virginia had four law schools; now there are eight. I don’t think the need doubled in the last 40 years (although I could be wrong on that).

    Another reason is the investment in bricks and mortar and equipment, etc., that law schools have encurred, Law school tuition now is astronomical compared to what it was 40 years ago. They need the students to pay for all that. (My cynical mindset is that if all this student loan money weren’t floating around and available, college tuition would drop dramatically, but that’s another subject.) I worked my way through law school at jobs that paid $3/hr. Nobody could do that now.

    But law school apps are dropping, I understand, so the schools have to contend for the market. If the stats in the ad are right and not misleading, then I don’t have a problem with the message. It’s addressed to the audience from which the tech-savvy students will be drawn and in a way that would best appeal to them. They are not after old f*rts like me, who date from the carbon paper days.

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