Skip to content

Is it OK for personal injury firms to run TV ads?

|Written By Robert Todd

In a highly competitive marketplace, personal injury law firms are increasingly taking to the airwaves to land clients.

Limitations on hospital referrals have caused some firms to switch to subtle forms of advertising, says Bernard Gluckstein.

Turn on your local all-news radio station, and you’re likely to at some point hear a commercial pitch from one of Ontario’s personal injury boutiques touting all of the reasons why you should go to them if you’re hurt in an accident.

Yet the high-visibility approach isn’t for everyone. Just ask Bernard Gluckstein of Toronto’s Gluckstein & Associates LLP.

“People who are spending a considerable amount of money on advertising, to a great extent, are the younger firms,” says Gluckstein, who is a certified specialist in civil litigation. “Unfortunately, the unsuspecting public doesn’t really know who the good firms and bad firms are.”

The in-your-face approach taken by some firms must come as a shock to senior members of the bar like Gluckstein. When he began practising in 1962, the Law Society of Upper Canada prohibited advertising.

“We learned to make sure that we gave great client service and relied on our clients to refer further cases to us,” he says. “Also, by giving good service, the health-care professionals got to know who you were.”

Of course, a firm’s approach to advertising likely reflects its target clientele. Firms interested in grabbing a high volume of clients for representation on relatively non-complex, low-value matters are likely drawn to the opportunity to get their name on TV, billboards or radio ads.

It’s certainly their best chance to get top of mind for people who otherwise would likely open the Yellow Pages to research their legal service options.

Lawyers interested in taking on high-value cases likely involving catastrophic injuries would simply be forced to field a high volume of phone calls from prospective clients with low-value matters and refer them to other firms if they advertised heavily in the mainstream media.

Gluckstein says most of his firm’s referrals come from previous clients and he longs for the days when the law society prohibited law firm advertising.

“I’m finding now that there are a lot of firms who aren’t qualified [but are] advertising that they’re specialists in the field,” he says. “They get the case and then they refer it out to counsel.”

There’s good reason for such firms to take a pass on cases that they find go beyond their level of expertise.

“If somebody puts themselves out as an expert in a particular field and if they handle the case and they don’t handle it to the extent that an expert would handle it, they’re opening themselves out to a malpractice suit,” he notes.

Meanwhile, Gluckstein suggests personal injury firms focus their advertising investments on specific segments of the health-care profession that have traditionally been a key source of referrals for high-value matters.

But that’s changing. Hospitals have recently indicated that their staff members, such as doctors and social workers, aren’t able to refer patients to lawyers.

That shift has prompted firms to modify their campaigns to what Gluckstein refers to as “subtle advertising.” That means firms are now more likely to sponsor events at or involving hospitals or health-care professionals.

“Just to allow the health-care professionals to know they’re there, not that they’re going to get direct referrals, but somebody may come to one of the doctors or social workers and say, ‘What do you think of this firm?’ They’ll basically say, ‘It’s a good firm. They know what they’re doing.’”

Gluckstein says that arrangement has worked out well for lawyers and hospitals alike. The lawyers get the increased exposure and promotion of their services, while hospitals have benefited greatly from the sponsorship funding provided by law firms.

James Howie of Howie Sacks & Henry LLP says his firm is most concerned about enhancing its reputation among other lawyers in order to foster referrals. That has meant a high portion of his firm’s ad investment goes to legal publications.

“We don’t consider [the consumer press] to be of any great merit to our firm,” says Howie, who notes that his firm doesn’t even advertise in the Yellow Pages.

“I know that other firms seem to do it quite regularly. You can open the pages of the Sun or turn on 680 News radio and you will hear ads for other personal injury firms. I suspect that the reason they do it and continue to do it is that it attracts the type of work they would like.”

Howie says it’s up to the law society to determine the legitimacy of law firm ads. Still, he admits he “might find some ads mildly offensive. But I haven’t heard any ads that are horribly over the top.”

He notes that before any advertising was permitted, Ontario lawyers would likely have found any such commercial content offensive. “Times have changed,” he says.

  • Ron
    I don't find advertising to be particularly offensive as long as it is not misleading. I am more concerned with the spectre of lawyers directly or indirectly paying hospitals, doctors, physiotherapists, police, brain injury clincs, tow truck drivers and anyone else out there willing to refer files for cash or "donations". I am equally concerned with the number of questionable "expert" reports which are routinely commissioned by both sides of the bar. As far as trials go, most cases never reach that stage and a reasonable lawyer who can settle my case would be more valuable to me than someone pushing me into an expensive trial. If I have to go to trial, I would much rather know how many trials my lawyer has won (that is obtained a better result for me than was offered in settlement) over how many cases he or she took to trial.
    Lawyers have much to be proud of but as Shakespeare once observed, "something is rotten in the State of Denmark" folks!
  • Brian
    How many consumers of the services of personal injury lawyers (subtle advertsers or otherwise) ask the prospective (OTLA) "trial lawer" if they have ever taken a case to trial? Most consumers of pi services aren't sophisticated clients (like the clients of corporate/commercial lawyers) and are easily mislead. If the pi trial lawyer has never taken a case to trail - and a stubbon adjuster insists on a lowball settlement - how could this lawyer possibly try the case to the fullest extent of the law? Maybe pi lawyers should be obligated to tell clients how many cases they have taken to trial - and if never - say so? That way the unsuspecting consumer won't be surprised if suddenly her/his (trail) lawyer farms out the case to a lawyer who actually does have trial experience. Call me picky but it seems to me that allowing potential clients to incorrectly assume all trial lawyer have taken cases to trial is a form of deceptive advertising.
  • Chris
    A large part of the problem is that most consumers deal with lawyers so infrequently, they don't know *how* to shop for a lawyer, or what they should expect from a lawyer. Advertising and "top of mind" then becomes disproportionately powerful - people settle for the first lawyer they call, figuring that a) they must be good seeing as they're so "successful", as evidenced by their prominent advertising (be it blaring radio ads, or subtle sponsorships), and b) dismissing any reservations they might have, for want of knowing that another lawyer might have a completely different approach.
  • Brian
    "Glass houses" revisited: I'd like to hear concrete examples of what counts as "malpractice" due to a failure to litigate to the fullest extent. Readers are left to wonder. How about if the ("unqualified"?) pi lawyer allows, for want of a toll free call to the CPO, an unqualified psychological "expert" opinion in his/her brain injury case to drive down the value of his "white elephant's" "high value" claim. Would that be "mapractice"? And if so - are we to believe the entrenched, subtle advertisers can claim the highground over the crass mainstream press advertisers on this score? Sounds like elitist, self-serving finger pointing - at least to me.
  • Gary
    I am more disturbed by the "subtle advertising" reference and less by the ads. Mr. Gluckstein can spend millions of dollars on putting his name on trauma lounges and hosting events for hospital staff and questions the ethics of firms that advertise. I think an article should be done defining "subtle advertising", i for one would like to know what that is. People in glass houses....
  • Brian
    The most interesting aspects of this column are the assertions made about "unqualified" Ontario pi law firms and how not handling a case to the "extent" it ought to have been constitues grounds for a "malpractice" complaint. There is lots of press talk lately about ("high value") catastrophic injury cases and WPI calculation. And there has been press talk about "rogue" (Toronto Sun) medicolegal experts "proliferating" the Ontario pi context. Now we hear there are (lots?) of unqualified pi lawyers/firms committing "malpractice" by taking on serious injury cases despite their not being "qualifed" to do so! Seems to me that these assertions/charges beg a further Law Times article exploring this disturbing revelation.
cover image

DIGITAL EDITION

Subscribers get early and easy access to Law Times.

Professional Development


Law Times Poll


A Law Times column argues it’s time for provincial laws dedicated to stopping defamatory publications on the Internet. Do you think that new legislation will help counter defamatory statements online?
RESULTS ❯