In The

Supreme Court of the United States




Decided June 13, 1988

Justice O’Connor, Dissenting

Topic: Attorneys*Court vote: 6–3
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Joining O'Connor opinion: Chief Justice REHNQUIST Chief Justice REHNQUIST Justice SCALIA Justice SCALIA
Citation: 486 U.S. 466 Docket: 87–16Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez

* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database

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Relying primarily on Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel of Supreme Court of Ohio, 471 U. S. 626 (1985), the Court holds that States may not prohibit a form of attorney advertising that is potentially more pernicious than the advertising at issue in that case. I agree with the Court that the reasoning in Zauderer supports the conclusion reached today. That decision, however, was itself the culmination of a line of cases built on defective premises and flawed reasoning. As today's decision illustrates, the Court has been unable or unwilling to restrain the logic of the underlying analysis within reasonable bounds. The resulting interference with important and valid public policies is so destructive that I believe the analytical framework itself should now be reexamined.


Zauderer held that the First Amendment was violated by a state rule that forbade attorneys to solicit or accept employment through advertisements containing information or advice regarding a specific legal problem. See id. at 471 U. S. 639 -647. I dissented from this holding because I believed that our precedents permitted, and good judgment required, that we give greater deference to the States' legitimate efforts to regulate advertising by their attorneys. Emphasizing the important differences between professional services and standardized consumer products, I concluded that unsolicited legal advice was not analogous to the free samples that are often used to promote sales in other contexts. First, the quality of legal services is typically more difficult for most laypersons to evaluate, and the consequences of a mistaken evaluation of the "free sample" may be much more serious. For that reason, the practice of offering unsolicited legal advice as a means of enticing potential clients into a professional relationship is much more likely to be misleading than superficially similar practices in the sale of ordinary consumer goods. Second, and more important, an attorney has an obligation to provide clients with complete and disinterested advice. The advice contained in unsolicited "free samples" is likely to be colored by the lawyer's own interest in drumming up business, a result that is sure to undermine the professional standards that States have a substantial interest in maintaining.

Zauderer dealt specifically with a newspaper advertisement. Today's decision -which invalidates a similar rule against targeted, direct-mail advertising -wraps the protective mantle of the Constitution around practices that have even more potential for abuse. First, a personalized letter is somewhat more likely "to overpower the will and judgment of laypeople who have not sought [the lawyer's] advice." Zauderer, supra, at 471 U. S. 678 (O'CONNOR, J., concurring in part, concurring in judgment in part, and dissenting in part). For people whose formal contacts with the legal system are infrequent, the authority of the law itself may tend to cling to attorneys, just as it does to police officers. Unsophisticated citizens, understandably intimidated by the courts and their officers, may therefore find it much more difficult to ignore an apparently "personalized" letter from an attorney than to ignore a general advertisement.

Second, "personalized" form letters are designed to suggest that the sender has some significant personal knowledge about, and concern for, the recipient. Such letters are reasonably transparent when they come from somebody selling consumer goods or stock market tips, but they may be much more misleading when the sender belongs to a profession whose members are ethically obliged to put their clients' interests ahead of their own.

Third, targeted mailings are more likely than general advertisements to contain advice that is unduly tailored to serve the pecuniary interests of the lawyer. Even if such mailings are reviewed in advance by a regulator, they will rarely be seen by the bar in general. Thus, the lawyer's professional colleagues will not have the chance to observe how the desire to sell oneself to potential customers has been balanced against the duty to provide objective legal advice. An attorney's concern with maintaining a good reputation in the professional community, which may in part be motivated by long-term pecuniary interests, will therefore provide less discipline in this context than in the case of general advertising.

Although I think that the regulation at issue today is even more easily defended than the one at issue in Zauderer, I agree that the rationale for that decision may fairly be extended to cover today's case. Targeted direct-mail advertisements -like general advertisements but unlike the kind of in-person solicitation that may be banned under Ohralik v. Ohio State Bar Assn., 436 U. S. 447 (1978) -can at least theoretically be regulated by the States through prescreening mechanisms. In-person solicitation, moreover, is inherently more prone to abuse than almost any form of written communication. Zauderer concluded that the decision in Ohralik was limited by these "unique features" of in-person solicitation, see 471 U.S. at 471 U. S. 641, and today's majority simply applies the logic of that interpretation of Ohralik to the case before us.


Attorney advertising generally falls under the rubric of "commercial speech." Political speech, we have often noted, is at the core of the First Amendment. See, e.g., Boos v. Barry, 485 U. S. 312, 485 U. S. 318 (1988). One reason for the special status of political speech was suggested in a metaphor that has become almost as familiar as the principle that it sought to justify:

[W]hen men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe... that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas -that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.

Abrams v. United States, 250 U. S. 616, 250 U. S. 630 (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting). Cf., e.g., Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U. S. 46, 485 U. S. 50 -51 (1988). Traditionally, the constitutional fence around this metaphorical marketplace of ideas had not shielded the actual marketplace of purely commercial transactions from governmental regulation.

In Virginia Pharmacy Bd. v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc., 425 U. S. 748 (1976), however, the Court concluded that the First Amendment protects the communication of the following so-called "idea": "I will sell you the X prescription drug at the Y price." See id. at 425 U. S. 761. The Court argued that the public interest requires that private economic decisions be well informed, and it suggested that no satisfactory line could be drawn between ideas about public affairs and information relevant to such private decisions. Id. at 425 U. S. 762 -765. The dissent observed that the majority had overstated the difficulties of distinguishing public affairs from such matters as the "decision... to purchase one or another kind of shampoo." Id. at 425 U. S. 787 (REHNQUIST, J., dissenting). The dissent also foresaw that the logic of Virginia Pharmacy would almost necessarily extend to advertising by physicians and attorneys. Id. at 425 U. S. 785. This prediction soon proved correct, see Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U. S. 350 (1977), and subsequent decisions have radically curtailed the power of the States to forbid conduct that I believe "promote[s] distrust of lawyers and disrespect for our own system of justice." Id. at 433 U. S. 394 (Powell, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

The latest developments, in Zauderer and now today, confirm that the Court should apply its commercial speech doctrine with more discernment than it has shown in these cases. Decisions subsequent to Virginia Pharmacy and Bates, supra, moreover, support the use of restraint in applying this doctrine to attorney advertising. We have never held, for example, that commercial speech has the same constitutional status as speech on matters of public policy, and the Court has consistently purported to review laws regulating commercial speech under a significantly more deferential standard of review.

Expression concerning purely commercial transactions has come within the ambit of the [First] Amendment's protection only recently.... To require a parity of constitutional protection for commercial and noncommercial speech alike could invite dilution, simply by a leveling process, of the force of the Amendment's guarantee with respect to the latter kind of speech. Rather than subject the First Amendment to such a devitalization, we instead have afforded commercial speech a limited measure of protection, commensurate with its subordinate position in the scale of First Amendment values, while allowing modes of regulation that might be impermissible in the realm of noncommercial expression.

Ohralik v. Ohio State Bar Assn., supra, at 436 U. S. 455 -456 (footnote omitted).

A standardized legal test has been devised for commercial speech cases. Under that test, such speech is entitled to constitutional protection only if it concerns lawful activities and is not misleading; if the speech is protected, government may still ban or regulate it by laws that directly advance a substantial governmental interest and are appropriately tailored to that purpose. See Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Comm'n of New York, 447 U. S. 557, 447 U. S. 566 (1980). Applying that test to attorney advertising, it is clear to me that the States should have considerable latitude to ban advertising that is " potentially or demonstrably misleading," In re R.M.J., 455 U. S. 191, 455 U. S. 202 (1982) (emphasis added), as well as truthful advertising that undermines the substantial governmental interest in promoting the high ethical standards that are necessary in the legal profession.

Some forms of advertising by lawyers might be protected under this test. Announcing the price of an initial consultation might qualify, for example, especially if appropriate disclaimers about the costs of other services were included. Even here, the inherent difficulties of policing such advertising suggest that we should hesitate to interfere with state rules designed to ensure that adequate disclaimers are included and that such advertisements are suitably restrained.

As soon as one steps into the realm of prices for "routine" legal services such as uncontested divorces and personal bankruptcies, however, it is quite clear to me that the States may ban such advertising completely. The contrary decision in Bates was, in my view, inconsistent with the standard test that is now applied in commercial speech cases. Until one becomes familiar with a client's particular problems, there is simply no way to know that one is dealing with a "routine" divorce or bankruptcy. Such an advertisement is therefore inherently misleading if it fails to inform potential clients that they are not necessarily qualified to decide whether their own apparently simple problems can be handled by "routine" legal services. Furthermore, such advertising practices will undermine professional standards if the attorney accepts the economic risks of offering fixed rates for solving apparently simple problems that will sometimes prove not to be so simple after all. For a lawyer to promise the world that such matters as uncontested divorces can be handled for a flat fee will inevitably create incentives to ignore (or avoid discovering) the complexities that would lead a conscientious attorney to treat some clients' cases as anything but routine. It may be possible to devise workable rules that would allow something more than the most minimal kinds of price advertising by attorneys. That task, however, is properly left to the States, and it is certainly not a fit subject for constitutional adjudication. Under the Central Hudson test, government has more than ample justification for banning or strictly regulating most forms of price advertising.

Solicitation practices like the "free sample" techniques approved by Zauderer and today's decision are even less deserving of constitutional protection than price advertising for supposedly routine legal services. Applying the Central Hudson test to the regulation at issue today, for example, I think it clear that Kentucky has a substantial interest in preventing the potentially misleading effects of targeted, direct-mail advertising, as well as the corrosive effects that such advertising can have on appropriate professional standards. Soliciting business from strangers who appear to need particular legal services, when a significant motive for the offer is the lawyer's pecuniary gain, always has a tendency to corrupt the solicitor's professional judgment. This is especially true when the solicitation includes the offer of a "free sample," as petitioner's proposed letter does. I therefore conclude that American Bar Association Model Rule of Professional Conduct 7.3 (1984) sweeps no more broadly than is necessary to advance a substantial governmental interest. See Central Hudson, supra, at 447 U. S. 566. The Kentucky Supreme Court correctly found that petitioner's letter could permissibly be banned under Rule 7.3, and I dissent from the Court's decision to reverse that judgment.


The roots of the error in our attorney advertising cases are a defective analogy between professional services and standardized consumer products and a correspondingly inappropriate skepticism about the States' justifications for their regulations. In Bates, for example, the majority appeared to demand conclusive proof that the country would be better off if the States were allowed to retain a rule that served "to inhibit the free flow of commercial information and to keep the public in ignorance." 433 U.S. at 433 U. S. 365. Although the opinion contained extensive discussion of the proffered justifications for restrictions on price advertising, the result was little more than a bare conclusion that "we are not persuaded that price advertising will harm consumers." See id. at 433 U. S. 368 -379. Dismissing Justice Powell's careful critique of the implicit legislative factfinding that underlay its analysis, the Bates majority simply insisted on concluding that the benefits of advertising outweigh its dangers. Compare id. at 433 U. S. 373, n. 28, with id. at 433 U. S. 391 -400 (Powell, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). In my view, that policy decision was not derived from the First Amendment, and it should not have been used to displace a different and no less reasonable policy decision of the State whose regulation was at issue.

Bates was an early experiment with the doctrine of commercial speech, and it has proved to be problematic in its application. Rather than continuing to work out all the consequences of its approach, we should now return to the States the legislative function that has so inappropriately been taken from them in the context of attorney advertising. The Central Hudson test for commercial speech provides an adequate doctrinal basis for doing so, and today's decision confirms the need to reconsider Bates in the light of that doctrine.

Even if I agreed that this Court should take upon itself the task of deciding what forms of attorney advertising are in the public interest, I would not agree with what it has done. The best arguments in favor of rules permitting attorneys to advertise are founded in elementary economic principles. See, e.g., Hazard, Pearce, & Stempel, Why Lawyers Should Be Allowed to Advertise: A Market Analysis of Legal Services, 58 N.Y.U.L.Rev. 1084 (1983). Restrictions on truthful advertising, which artificially interfere with the ability of suppliers to transmit price information to consumers, presumably reduce the efficiency of the mechanisms of supply and demand. Other factors being equal, this should cause or enable suppliers (in this case attorneys) to maintain a price/quality ratio in some of their services that is higher than would otherwise prevail. Although one could probably not test this hypothesis empirically, it is inherently plausible. Nor is it implausible to imagine that one effect of restrictions on lawyer advertising, and perhaps sometimes an intended effect, is to enable attorneys to charge their clients more for some services (of a given quality) than they would be able to charge absent the restrictions.

Assuming, arguendo, that the removal of advertising restrictions should lead in the short run to increased efficiency in the provision of legal services, I would not agree that we can safely assume the same effect in the long run. The economic argument against these restrictions ignores the delicate role they may play in preserving the norms of the legal profession. While it may be difficult to defend this role with precise economic logic, I believe there is a powerful argument in favor of restricting lawyer advertising, and that this argument is, at the very least, not easily refuted by economic analysis.

One distinguishing feature of any profession, unlike other occupations that may be equally respectable, is that membership entails an ethical obligation to temper one's selfish pursuit of economic success by adhering to standards of conduct that could not be enforced either by legal fiat or through the discipline of the market. There are sound reasons to continue pursuing the goal that is implicit in the traditional view of professional life. Both the special privileges incident to membership in the profession and the advantages those privileges give in the necessary task of earning a living are means to a goal that transcends the accumulation of wealth. That goal is public service, which in the legal profession can take a variety of familiar forms. This view of the legal profession need not be rooted in romanticism or self-serving sanctimony, though of course it can be. Rather, special ethical standards for lawyers are properly understood as an appropriate means of restraining lawyers in the exercise of the unique power that they inevitably wield in a political system like ours.

It is worth recalling why lawyers are regulated at all, or to a greater degree than most other occupations, and why history is littered with failed attempts to extinguish lawyers as a special class. See generally R. Pound, The Lawyer from Antiquity to Modern Times (1953). Operating a legal system that is both reasonably efficient and tolerably fair cannot be accomplished, at least under modern social conditions, without a trained and specialized body of experts. This training is one element of what we mean when we refer to the law as a "learned profession." Such knowledge, by its nature, cannot be made generally available, and it therefore confers the power and the temptation to manipulate the system of justice for one's own ends. Such manipulation can occur in at least two obvious ways. One results from overly zealous representation of the client's interests; abuse of the discovery process is one example whose causes and effects (if not its cure) is apparent. The second, and, for present purposes the more relevant, problem is abuse of the client for the lawyer's benefit. Precisely because lawyers must be provided with expertise that is both esoteric and extremely powerful, it would be unrealistic to demand that clients bargain for their services in the same arm's-length manner that may be appropriate when buying an automobile or choosing a dry cleaner. Like physicians, lawyers are subjected to heightened ethical demands on their conduct towards those they serve. These demands are needed because market forces, and the ordinary legal prohibitions against force and fraud, are simply insufficient to protect the consumers of their necessary services from the peculiar power of the specialized knowledge that these professionals possess.

Imbuing the legal profession with the necessary ethical standards is a task that involves a constant struggle with the relentless natural force of economic self-interest. It cannot be accomplished directly by legal rules, and it certainly will not succeed if sermonizing is the strongest tool that may be employed. Tradition and experiment have suggested a number of formal and informal mechanisms, none of which is adequate by itself and many of which may serve to reduce competition (in the narrow economic sense) among members of the profession. A few examples include the great efforts made during this century to improve the quality and breadth of the legal education that is required for admission to the bar; the concomitant attempt to cultivate a subclass of genuine scholars within the profession; the development of bar associations that aspire to be more than trade groups; strict disciplinary rules about conflicts of interest and client abandonment; and promotion of the expectation that an attorney's history of voluntary public service is a relevant factor in selecting judicial candidates.

Restrictions on advertising and solicitation by lawyers properly and significantly serve the same goal. Such restrictions act as a concrete, day-to-day reminder to the practicing attorney of why it is improper for any member of this profession to regard it as a trade or occupation like any other. There is no guarantee, of course, that the restrictions will always have the desired effect, and they are surely not a sufficient means to their proper goal. Given their inevitable anticompetitive effects, moreover, they should not be thoughtlessly retained or insulated from skeptical criticism. Appropriate modifications have been made in the light of reason and experience, and other changes may be suggested in the future.

In my judgment, however, fairly severe constraints on attorney advertising can continue to play an important role in preserving the legal profession as a genuine profession. Whatever may be the exactly appropriate scope of these restrictions at a given time and place, this Court's recent decisions reflect a myopic belief that "consumers," and thus our Nation, will benefit from a constitutional theory that refuses to recognize either the essence of professionalism or its fragile and necessary foundations. Compare, e.g., Bates, 433 U.S. at 433 U. S. 370 -372, with id. at 433 U. S. 400 -401, and n. 11 (Powell, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). In one way or another, time will uncover the folly of this approach. I can only hope that the Court will recognize the danger before it is too late to effect a worthwhile cure.

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