The real reason a law firm decided to vandalize its own billboards | Pittsburgh City Paper

The real reason a law firm decided to vandalize its own billboards

click to enlarge The real reason a law firm decided to vandalize its own billboards
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Morgan & Morgan law firm billboard in Pittsburgh
When they’re not going up against medical providers and insurance companies in the courtroom, personal injury lawyers are duking it out among themselves on Pittsburgh’s billboards and airwaves for potential clients. Though expensive and potentially damaging to the legal profession’s credibility, these litigators say the exposure is worth it.

It appears that some surprisingly well-mannered vandals have grown tired of one lawyer in particular who’s recently plastered his face around the city — John Morgan, founder of the nationwide personal injury giant Morgan & Morgan.

They’d be standard billboards, with Morgan’s mug and trusty “For The People” tagline, if not for the apparent graffiti poking fun at the firm. “For” has become “fool” in one variation that shows Morgan sporting a clown nose and curly wig. Another billboard on Allegheny River Boulevard now features the tagline "For The Money" and shows Morgan with neon green paint over his eyes and chin, a giant, similarly colored cash bag by his side.

The thing is, the firm is poking fun at itself — the “graffiti” is part of their marketing.

“We create advertising that people will remember and meet people where they are,” Morgan tells Pittsburgh City Paper.

Morgan & Morgan has grown into the empire it is today — America’s largest personal injury law firm, by their count — in part because of its penchant for eye-catching and, at times, controversial marketing. The firm was one of the first to adopt widespread marketing after the Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that attorney advertising is protected speech, and the fake vandalism trick dates back to at least 2015 in some parts of the country.

Tort law, or litigation over civil wrongdoing that results in harm, involves high volumes of one-off clients who may not know a lawyer personally, making it worthwhile for personal injury attorneys to catch the attention of just about everyone, even if it takes a little self-deprecation. That’s why, on a given day, more conventional billboards, commercials, and car wraps might all offer a lawyer who will fight for you after an accident.

Even firms that don’t prioritize marketing tend to get their cases through referrals from attorneys who do. The deluge of advertisements seeks to inform people that they can seek damages in court for their pain and suffering, according to Stanford professor Nora Freeman Engstrom. She’s written extensively about attorney marketing and high-volume personal injury law firms, known as “settlement mills.”

But plaintiffs could lose out in the end.

“We worry that this advertising might erode individuals' respect for lawyers and legal processes, and might even fuel the notion that plaintiffs go to lawyers to make a quick buck, not because they are legitimately injured,” Freeman Engstrom tells City Paper.

She adds that a person facing injury or financial loss has no reliable way to assess an attorney’s quality, an “extraordinarily important” factor in case outcomes. “There is nowhere to look, for instance, to determine the extent to which a given lawyer usually litigates or settles, or, if [they settle], whether [they tend] to resolve cases quickly or slowly or whether he obtains unusually generous or stingy sums,” Freeman Engstrom says.

Plaintiffs in Pennsylvania aren’t flying totally blind. The Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania makes some records of an attorney’s prior discipline available for free online and others obtainable at 50 cents per page.

Still, name recognition is king for personal injury lawyers, as confirmed by Bob Sill of Sill Marketing Diagnostics & Treatment, which handles the advertising for local personal injury law firm Shenderovich, Shenderovich & Fishman.

“It’s good that you’re at least at the top of the funnel, so if there is a problem, you’re at least aware of their name,” Sill tells CP.

Morgan & Morgan is a relatively new name in Pittsburgh, opening its first local office in Downtown last year. Four years earlier, it hired an attorney to staff its Philadelphia office after a competitor sued them for advertising legal services in the city, despite lacking a substantial presence.

While Sill says he’s “certain” Morgan & Morgan’s marketing push has affected business for some firms, Pittsburghers’ sensibilities give local lawyers a leg up. “We tend to be more provincial,” Sill says. “Whether it be in the media industry, or the legal industry, out of town doesn’t play as well in Pittsburgh as it does in other markets.”

Edgar Snyder & Associates, likely Pittsburgh’s best-known personal injury law firm and another pioneer in legal advertising, did not return requests for comment.

National firms may have more resources at their disposal — Morgan said his firm’s marketing budget is “north of $200 million.” But Sill notes that these funds get spread across each market, where a firm like Morgan & Morgan may only have one office. Outdoor advertising, to say nothing of television or radio commercials, can be an expensive, often year-round endeavor for personal injury lawyers. The outdoor advertising company Lamar charges anywhere from $8,000 to $21,000 to set up a billboard for four weeks along one of Pittsburgh’s major roadways.

While this might come as a surprise to any observant driver who’s taken Route 28, less than 5% of Lamar’s locations in the region go towards legal advertising, according to Lamar of Pittsburgh senior vice president Stan Geier. That figure remains relatively stable year-to-year, he adds.

“It's not as affected by the ebb & flow of the economy the way other categories like retail or restaurants are affected,” Geier tells CP.

For all of the faults of legal advertising, and maybe some occasional annoyance from consumers, prospective plaintiffs can take comfort knowing that the old wisdom to never hire a billboard lawyer is probably bunk.

“There is not good empirical evidence one way or the other,” Freeman Engstrom says.

Disability Pride
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Disability Pride

By Mars Johnson