We Will Sell No Astrachan Before Its Time

James Astrachan is a "professionally focused attorney" mixed with the "nuttiness of an intuitive ad man"

Published in 2009 Maryland Super Lawyers — January 2009

James Astrachan writes the book on advertising law. Literally.

In 2007 his firm, Astrachan Gunst Thomas, took over the internationally published The Law of Advertising, which means Astrachan now spends his weekends reading every meaningful case in his field so he can help produce the three 400-page updates each year. "We took it over from Peter Rosden, who, with his father, was the original author going back to the 1970s," he says. "I've had this book in my library since 1981. All of a sudden, we're the authors. I'm kind of surprised to find myself in that company. I guess lightning does strike."

The role is the latest in a career spent voraciously learning and communicating everything he can about advertising and copyright law. He teaches (at the University of Maryland), writes (for The Daily Record) and speaks (everywhere), but still insists, "I'm not doing that much. ... It's another way of being the most informed lawyer you can be, the best lawyer you can be. I'm very fortunate to be able to do these things."

Astrachan got into law by default, unsure what his next move should be after leaving college with a marketing degree. "My father said, ‘How'd you like to go to law school?' and I said, ‘Sure.'" Astrachan quickly found he loved delving into cases. He worked for the IRS on private rulings, but didn't care for the bureaucracy. He was teaching tax law at Loyola College in 1981 when a former student, Roger Gray—who showed up only on the first and last days and still earned an A—called him to say he was helping form an ad agency, Smith Burke and Azzam, and needed a lawyer. "That was the start of advertising law for me," Astrachan says.

The energy that came from working around creative types was an instant draw and he responded with his own creativity. He wrote a newsletter: "Legal Advice: Rules for an Industry Claiming to Have None." He had lots of material. "Many creative directors think there are no rules," he says. "‘Copyrights? Trademarks? What's that? This is funny; we should be able to run it.' When you do an advertisement, you can't retract it. It's out there and if you violate somebody's rights you're going to hear about it."

The newsletter was a huge undertaking for an extracurricular activity, and he was relieved and thrilled when its publisher, Dolan Media, told him they were getting out of the newsletter business, but would like him to write a newspaper column instead.

For 15 years, his byline has appeared monthly in The Daily Record. The columns tell cases like a story, conversationally, and then explain their implications. A Texas law, for example, criminalized promoting or selling sexual devices, and in 2008 two sex toy retailers challenged its constitutionality. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld an advertiser's conviction, "holding that there is no constitutional right to ‘stimulate ... another's genitals with an object designed or marketed as useful primarily for that purpose,'" Astrachan wrote. "Trust me, I'm not making this stuff up."

In 2004, Astrachan became president of the Advertising Association of Baltimore, where he spent his time highlighting Baltimore as a creative city. "I was very critical of decisions to hire New York agencies to do work that was funded by Maryland taxpayers," he says. He also helped rescue the association from a dire financial situation.

When he stepped down in 2007, at the association's Christmas party, he was presented with a token of appreciation: his own wine label. Over his photo, the label said, "Baltimore's Finest Premium Blend," a smooth mixture of "professionally focused attorney" with the "nuttiness of an intuitive ad man."

"I don't think they went out and stepped on grapes, but it was an extremely nice, creative gesture," he says. The group sold cases at an auction to raise money, giving Astrachan the final half a case that didn't sell. He keeps a bottle—still corked—in his office. Asked if the wine is good, he doesn't hesitate: "No," he says. "But it's not bad."

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