Attorney Advertising and the Contingency Fee Cost Paradox


Publish Date:
May 1, 2013
Publication Title:
65 Stanford Law Review 633 .
Journal Article
  • Nora Freeman Engstrom, Attorney Advertising and the Contingency Fee Cost Paradox, 65 Stanford Law Review 633 (2013).


It has long been taken as gospel that attorney advertising drives down the cost of legal services. The Supreme Court assumed it when first permitting attorney advertising in the landmark First Amendment case, Bates v. State Bar of Arizona. And, in the decades following Bates, courts, commentators, the ABA, and the FTC have followed suit, frequently touting advertising’s ability to cut consumer costs. The price effect of attorney advertising is thus both seemingly settled and also deeply embedded in its judicial justification.

But there is a wrinkle. Though it appears advertising did drive down prices for routine legal services in the years immediately following Bates, in the intervening decades, there has been a decided, yet heretofore unexplored, shift. Contemporary attorney advertising is now mostly the province of the personal injury bar. Yet there is scant evidence that attorney advertising reduces the contingency fees personal injury lawyers charge. To the contrary, the best, most sophisticated, most comprehensive study of legal fees and attorney advertising ever conducted found that, unlike for most basic legal services (e.g., wills, personal bankruptcies, uncontested divorces), those who advertised personal injury legal services charged higher prices than their non-advertising counterparts. Other evidence likewise shows contingency fees have not dropped, even while personal injury lawyers’ ad expenditures have soared.

This fact has been all but ignored, though it is of enormous consequence for both the legality of attorney advertising and the delivery of legal services more generally. This Article aims to reopen and reorient the “settled” attorney advertising debate, in light of the particularities of personal injury practice and the changing nature of the market for personal legal services in the United States.