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Burger Raps 'Self-Touting' Ads of Some Lawyers

August 12, 1986|DAVID G. SAVAGE | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Warren E. Burger, in his last speech as chief justice to the American Bar Assn., on Monday denounced lawyers who promote themselves through "colorful, self-touting and deceptive advertising," saying such appeals "would make a used-car dealer blush with shame."

Burger also urged the attorneys to adopt clearer ethical standards and stronger sanctions against those who violate them.

"I sense that the hostility toward our profession is growing and has grown sharply in the last 8 to 10 years," Burger told the annual ABA meeting.

Reaping Huge Rewards

He blamed this decline in the reputation of lawyers to reports of attorneys aggressively selling their services and reaping huge rewards for successful damage claims.

"Few things have done more serious damage to the standing of the legal profession than the unseemly--indeed shocking--spectacle of a handful of lawyers who dashed off to India to solicit clients after the tragic multiple disaster in Bhopal," said Burger, referring to the chemical leak at a Union Carbide plant that killed 2,000 people.

Burger, who in June announced his retirement from the high court after 17 years, said the bar association must take a stronger stand against ethical violations, or government will.

Meaningful Discipline

"Our profession, including the judiciary, must assume responsibility for meaningful disciplinary proceedings. Up to this date, we have not done so adequately," he said.

The themes were familiar ones for Burger who throughout his term as the nation's top legal official has campaigned for improved administration of the courts and an adherence to the "traditional values" of the legal profession.

As is his custom, Burger did not join in discussion over the role of the court or philosophies of the law and he made no allusions to court decisions. The only evidence of recent controversy was a demonstration outside the New York Hilton by gay activists who denounced the high court's June ruling upholding state laws against sodomy.

His Court Opened Door

In recent years, advertising by lawyers has particularly aroused Burger's ire, but ironically it was the Burger Court that opened the door to such advertising in 1977 by striking down state restrictions on such promotions.

On Monday, however, he noted that "upon mature reflection," most lawyers should understand that "just because the Constitution permits an act (such as advertising) does not make it ethically acceptable."

The ABA's code of ethics permits advertising by lawyers so long as it is neither false nor "undignified." In a report presented to the bar association this week, the committee on "professionalism" said local and state bars should discipline attorneys who use "false, fraudulent or misleading advertising."

Urges Fees in Writing

Since fees are the source of much "bitter criticism," the report also urged lawyers to set "fee arrangements in writing" for their clients before beginning their work.

But the committee report, which is to be discussed but not voted on at the meeting, also took pains to dispute the notion that all lawyers make enormous incomes.

"The over-$60,000 salaries now paid beginning lawyers by some Wall Street firms make provocative headlines," the report said, "but they are not at all typical. The average American lawyer in 1984 made less than $50,000."

Reagan Approach Hit

Meanwhile, in an earlier speech to the ABA, New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo criticized the Reagan Administration's approach of appointing judges based on their political views.

While admitting that Democrat presidents have done the same, Cuomo said, "the best way to pick a judge is by picking someone who is good at doing what a judge is supposed to do, not at what a President, governor, or legislator is supposed to do."

Cuomo nevertheless saw no reason for the Senate to block the confirmation of President Reagan's two recent Supreme Court choices: Antonin Scalia and chief justice-designate William H. Rehnquist.

"A clear and compelling case would have to be made against" Rehnquist to justify rejecting him, said Cuomo, who is considered a likely candidate for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination.

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