by Mona Zarbafian
Chicago lawyer Corri Fetman’s “Life’s short. Get a divorce” marketing campaign is a combination of sexualized images and suggestive slogans that influence a greater market than solely potential divorce-seeking couples. In her quest to deviate from the stereotypical image of legal advertising, Fetman has linked the legal profession to the sex industry; furthermore, she has implemented a marketing strategy that violates ethical codes of conduct, encourages litigation, and diminishes confidence in the legal profession. Although these violations have resulted in individual gains for Fetman, broader collective ramifications for the legal profession are at stake.
There are three categories of legal advertising: The traditionalist approach is concerned that marketing will introduce commodification, which will in turn reduce the professional status of lawyers. Conversely, the modernist approach posits that advertising is an essential element in ensuring public access to justice. Finally, free market proponents argue that the highly competitive legal market requires lawyers to brand themselves and their work in order to enable consumer choice. In all of these, a tension exists between a lawyer’s obligation to provide legal services and the inherent competition between lawyers. Balancing that tension properly is a crucial component of ethical legal advertising.
In congruence with the free market approach to legal advertising, Fetman, President of Fetman, Garland and Associates Ltd., has capitalized on her strengths and experience to distinguish herself and succeed in the legal market. In an interview with Bitter Media Inc., the Chicago-based attorney stated that she is not afraid to use sex appeal to her advantage and has created her advertisements in an effort to combat boring advertising. But in doing so, Fetman has done the profession a disservice by sexually flaunting her body to draw attention to her unrelated legal skills.
In breaking the stereotypical image of legal advertising, Fetman has linked the legal profession to her previous employment in the sex industry. In a clash of paradigm between promoting access to justice versus commoditization, it is important to realize that an overarching principle is that the earning capacity of a lawyer is a subsidiary of the higher duty owed to the legal profession. Defending her controversial, highly sexualized images and suggestive slogans, Fetman has asserted that her advertisements are “no different than going to a museum and viewing naked paintings by artists.” But that viewpoint misunderstands the difference between art, which by definition is an expression of the individual self, and the legal profession, which is concerned with upholding society’s laws and ethics. Fetman’s advertising is not a simple expression of her personality and concerns; rather, it has the power to bring disrepute to the whole legal profession. With one image, thousands of years of legal history and family case law become associated with Fetman’s bare bottom. While Fetman may argue that her racy photographs simply exemplify branding, this unrestrained commercialism also serves to reinforce negative societal stereotypes of lawyers as mercenaries.
While Fetman’s personal beliefs and profit margins are important considerations, her legal education at DePaul College of Law and the codes of professional conduct she must observe as a lawyer are more significant. Such rules emphasize that, as court officers, lawyers have duties, beyond those owed to their clients, to ensure that their actions do not harm society. The reality and implication of infringing these rules go beyond Fetman’s individual practice, as unenforced rules are of little value and do not inspire confidence in the legal profession. For Fetman, the individual implications of these advertisements are an increase in publicity, the production of a clothing line, and countless television appearances; however, by leveraging qualities other than professional excellence and integrity, Fetman has created collective ramifications for the legal profession.
Fetman’s advertisements cannot be viewed in isolation as they have implications for family law firms and other areas of law in general. In the area of family law, playing on sexuality and relationships could encourage a downwards spiralling strip-poker-style race to the bottom, in which models wear less and less clothes with each advertisement. As Fetman herself said “[w]e’re not going to stop. In fact, we’re getting ready to do more racy photos.” The issue boils down to determining the vision of society lawyers wish to endorse. The broader impact on legal advertising is that Fetman is creating a society in which unethical behaviour is seen as salvageable by simple legal mechanisms. Every advertisement asserts a greater degree of aggressiveness, provocativeness, and novelty than its predecessors. This new chain of advertisements could lead to situations where criminal defence lawyers use advertisements such as “Life is short. Rob a bank. We’re here to help.” Similarly, another advertisement could read “Is your wife black and blue? Come see us today!” Thus, Fetman’s undignified advertising sends a message about the general legal profession. Taken just a step or two further, her advertisements could lead to lawyers endorsing criminal and unethical behaviour in the name of profits. Society at large would not tolerate this kind of behaviour.
In contrast to DUI advertisements which attempt to aid clients through charges after they have occurred, Fetman’s advertisements do not ask whether there is an existing claim. These advertisements effectively encourage litigation by targeting married couples regardless of whether they have previously contemplated divorce. Additionally, Fetman’s highly sexualized images glamorize divorce and misleadingly suggest that divorces will lead to fantasy lives with individuals akin to the billboard models. To most, divorce is a life-changing process that should be conducted with great sensitivity and integrity. By suggesting people like the billboard models are awaiting divorcees, the divorce process is trivialized and made to seem of little consequence, since there are other fish in the sea worth pursuing. This is a problematic message, because, as a family lawyer, Fetman is in a powerful position to advise people at vulnerable times in their lives. Indeed, this kind of advice is precisely what Fetman’s profession requires. Providing advice in a way that is indifferent to the needs of her clients directly violates the code of ethical conduct as legal services are not means of taking advantage of vulnerable people.
Corrie Fetman’s “Life’s short. Get a divorce” marketing strategy breaks from the acceptable boundaries of legal advertising by linking the legal profession with the sex industry. These advertisements have violated the codes of ethical conduct, and if condoned as an individual scenario, will have collective ramifications for the legal profession at large.
[Mona Zarbafian wrote this paper for a course in Professional Responsibility taught by Professor Adam Dodek at Ottawa University Faculty of Law]