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How lawyers' TV ads became a billion-dollar industry

The wild world of lawyers' TV ads
The wild world of lawyers' TV ads 05:54

If you've turned on a television in the past four decades, you've seen attorneys advertising ad nauseam. Given just how prevalent they are, it's hard to imagine that there was a time when legal ads were illegal.

"In the old days it was unethical to advertise," said Texas attorney Jim Adler. "The bar could come after you and take away your law license. And it was also a crime."

When Adler opened up his own firm in 1973, he wasn't allowed to advertise for new clients. But that all changed four years later.

This 1976 Arizona newspaper ad for a law firm would lead to a Supreme Court decision that allowed attorneys to advertise their services.  CBS News

In 1977, the landmark Bates v. State Bar of Arizona case involved a small print ad that a Phoenix firm had dared to place in the local newspaper.

It opened the floodgates for a big shift in the legal profession.

Attorneys like Adler began making commercials:

"I'm better than a mean lawyer – I'm Jim Adler, the tough, smart lawyer!"

It wasn't a decision Adler made lightly. "Would it be proper? What would my friends say?"

Correspondent Conor Knighton asked, "Did you get some pushback from your colleagues?"

"Oh yeah. I was a pariah. People couldn't believe that I advertised."

But Adler couldn't believe how well it worked. "It was amazing," he said. "I went on one channel, and the phone started ringing off the hook."

Today, Jim Adler & Associates has more than 300 employees across Texas. His advertising budget has grown as well. Adler's "Texas Hammer" ads are big productions, and he creates versions that air in English and in Spanish. 

Jim Adler (the "Texas Hammer") wielding a big, big hammer:

Jim Adler -We Stand Tough 30s (Houston 1) by Jim Adler & Associates on YouTube

Attorney Trish Rich works with law firms to ensure their advertisements meet ethics requirements. "TV advertising in the United States for lawyers is a billion-dollar-a-year industry alone," she told Knighton.

She sees the ads as providing a service: "For most Americans who are just hiring a lawyer once or twice in their life, they often don't know lawyers. And so, lawyer advertising has helped connect a whole lot of Americans to legal help when they need it."

Today, there's plenty of help to choose from.

"The competition for clients has gotten more and more fierce over the years," said Rich. "And so, it really incentivizes a lot of lawyers to get flashier and flashier with their advertising."

Bryan Wilson, the "Texas Law Hawk," was born in 1986, which means he grew up in a world in which legal advertising was commonplace.  "Jim Adler'd be standing on a semi and he'd have a hammer and he'd break something," Wilson said. "The more and more amped up he got, the more and more I liked it. And so, that's kinda what I was thinking: What if I go way over-the-top with a video?"

Presenting Bryan Wilson, the "Texas Law Hawk":

Bryan Wilson, the Texas Law Hawk: Commercial 3 by Bryan Wilson on YouTube

Wilson's over-the-top ads feature jet skis and motorcycles. But the most notable difference from his predecessors? He's never paid a cent for a television commercial; his ads are all online.

Wilson said, "Most of my clients are my age or younger. I will usually not get somebody in their 60s. They usually have not seen my videos!"

But millions of people have. Wilson's ads went viral on YouTube.

Knighton asked, "Is 'funny' what people want in an attorney?"

"I think that they're gonna get that there are two sides to me," Wilson replied, "and that's why I include in my videos at least one segment, usually, where I'm talking normally."

All legal advertising, whether its online or on-air, has to comply with restrictions put in place by individual state bar associations. 

Kentucky lawyer Darryl Isaacs, of Isaacs & Isaacs, appears in this 2018 Super Bowl commercial fighting insurance company zombies, with the help of a dragon:

Super Bowl Commercial Video 2018 - Zombies Vs. Dragon & The Hammer by Isaacs & Isaacs Personal Injury Lawyers on YouTube

The Kentucky Bar deals with their Hammer, while the Alabama Bar regulates theirs. There's a weird amount of "hammer lawyers"!

Including a second one in the same family – Jim AND Bill Adler. "Double the Hammers, DOUBLE THE JUSTICE!!"

Jim Adler Double Trouble Commercial by Zervando Zermeño on YouTube

To date, Adler says his firm has spent more than $100 million on advertising. It works!

Which means these types of ads aren't slowing down any time soon.

For more info:

Story produced by David Rothman. Editor: Remington Korper. 

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