I would pay a good buck to see Thomas J. Henry advertise the full story of his $1.25 billion “verdict/judgment” for a “sexual assault to a minor” that has appeared so prominently on highway billboards. I’d like to see him use his reserved space atop the homepage of the the San Antonio Express-News website and on local television network affiliates to tell that story.

Money paid to the alleged victim: zero. Attempts to collect the judgment: zero.

Those last two sentences are my suggested edits for Henry to legally comply with a Jan. 31 decision handed down by the Texas Supreme Court amending rules for Texas lawyers who advertise their services.

Of course, that will never happen. That misleading $1.25 billion billboard will be replaced by advertisements trumpeting multimillion settlements that Henry and his firm of attorneys have won in which clients actually received a share of the proceeds. Henry will even have to amend his employment pitches to lawyers offering a base salary of $250,000 and the potential to earn millions more that lists the $1.25 billion judgment as first among his big scores.

To its credit, Express-News journalists have covered Henry aggressively over the years, and Monday published this article by reporter Patrick Danner about the Supreme Court ruling. An earlier article by Danner detailed the actual case that led to the uncollected judgment and explains how a change in the state’s legal advertising rules in 2018 enabled Henry to advertise the case several years after its conclusion.

I am old enough to remember a time when lawyers and physicians did not advertise. It was deemed unseemly. The professional organizations governing both the legal and medical professions feared that allowing any advertising would eventually lead to unscrupulous operators misleading the public in ways that brought dishonor to those professions.

In 1977, an Arizona law firm facing discipline for violating that state’s no advertising law took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor in Bates v. State of Arizona, noting that bankers and engineers, among others, had a First and Fourteenth Amendment right to advertise. Why not lawyers? The majority view seemed to be that state laws prohibiting advertising favored established law firms at the expense of the solo practitioner.

Many lawyers in San Antonio will tell you privately they disagree with the 1977 decision and loathe the plaintiffs attorneys who spend millions of dollars dominating the airwaves and other media blasting out their multimillion dollar judgments and payments to clients.

It’s hard to find a more obnoxious advertisement than attorney Jeff Davis bellowing out his firm’s phone number, “Four, four, four …”

Yet no one says no to the money, and it isn’t only media outlets taking in those ads and serving them up to viewers and readers. The San Antonio Spurs logo is displayed prominently on the Davis ads as he invites fans to contact his firm and get into the big lawsuit game.

Davis, Jim “The Texas Hammer” Adler and other lawyers dominating the local airwaves are obnoxious voices invading our homes during Spurs broadcasts and other programming, but as far as I know, they only advertise judgments that are actually collected and then shared with clients.

A reasonable consumer, however, would consider advertising to be deceptive when a major judgment or verdict is advertised and the alleged victim collects nothing.

Here is a verbatim passage from the Texas Supreme Court ruling:

“A communication about legal services may be misleading because it omits an
important fact or tells only part of the truth. A lawyer who knows that an advertised
verdict was later reduced or reversed, or never collected, or that the case was settled
for a lesser amount, must disclose the amount actually received by the client
with equal or greater prominence to avoid creating unjustified expectations on the part of potential clients. A lawyer may claim credit for a prior judgement or settlement only if the lawyer played a substantial role in obtaining that result.”

The ruling is an important step in the right direction, but for many of us, more should be done. The City of San Antonio and Bexar County could do a great public service by eliminating or restricting billboards visible from local highways. The next time you find yourself on an expressway, count the number of billboards featuring law firms promoting big buck settlements, medical practices advertising cosmetic surgery and those promoting alcohol.

Imagine a world without them.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.