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In the early days of attorney advertising, law firms created ads to demonstrate their unparalleled integrity and resourcefulness. Some three decades later, law firms are creating ads to demonstrate their unparalleled integrity and resourcefulness. Although firms themselves have undergone profound changes since the U.S. Supreme Court decided 30 years ago this month that even lawyers were entitled to free speech, the profession’s advertising manner and message � especially among the larger firms � have evolved very little in those 30 years, according to many industry observers. Some of the sameness is due to ethics rules, aimed to protect the public, that rein in unfounded claims and hyperbole. But most of the advertising vanilla, say observers, comes from risk aversion and a fear of flash that persist among law firm decision-makers. “It’s very frustrating,” said Micah Buchdahl, an attorney and president of HTMLawyers, a law firm marketing company based in Moorestown, N.J. “The law firm marketing world is still not very sophisticated,” he said. In June 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Bates v. Arizona, 433 U.S. 350, that disciplinary rules imposed by the State Bar of Arizona prohibiting lawyers from advertising violated free speech rights. In 1974, attorneys John Bates and Van O’Steen bought an ad in a local newspaper, in violation of the rule, for their law firm that provided services to low- and moderate-income clients who did not qualify for legal aid. In a 5-4 decision with Justice Harry A. Blackmun delivering the opinion, the court reasoned that such commercial speech deserved protection because of the information it conveyed to consumers. The court also concluded that allowing attorneys to advertise would not harm the legal profession or the administration of justice. Pushing the margin Since then, states have adopted their own versions of the advertising rules from the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, with the most stringent considered to be in California, Florida, Iowa, New Jersey and New York. Personal injury and matrimonial lawyers historically have been the ones to push the ethics margins with their campaigns, from ads that liken attorneys’ toughness to a pit bull’s, to the recent billboard advertisement for a matrimonial firm in Chicago that told consumers, “Life’s Short. Get a Divorce.” The sign featured images of a woman in racy lingerie and a shirtless man with toned abdominal muscles, with the scales of justice sandwiched in between them. Also of late, some larger, full-service law firms have confronted their own ethics concerns buying into publications with “Super Lawyer” or “Best Lawyers” advertising sections. Last year, the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Attorney Advertising issued an opinion banning lawyers from advertising in Super Lawyers and Best Lawyers publications. However, a judge has stayed the implementation of that opinion, pending a review of it by the New Jersey Supreme Court, a review other states may very well track. For the most part, however, advertising campaigns of bigger law firms have plodded past a few milestones over the years, but the changes have been conservative, said Jay Jaffe, president of Jaffe Associates and one of the first marketers to work with large law firms. “It all looks alike,” he said, referring to the state of law firm advertising today. Frank Burch, joint chief executive officer of DLA Piper, agrees, and attributes the lack of creativity to the way most attorneys are hard-wired. “Lawyers are left-brained,” he said. “Good marketing has a big emotional dimension. This is territory in which the profession historically has not been well-versed.” DLA Piper, a 3,333-attorney firm, recently created the position of global chief marketing officer to help boost its profile. The first large firm to run display ads � as opposed to tombstone-type announcements of new partners or associates � was Reed Smith in the mid-1980s, said Jaffe. Pittsburgh-based at the time, Reed Smith bought space in U.S. Air’s onboard magazine for ads that featured “businesspeople talking to each other,” as Jaffe described it. The first big law firm to run a national campaign, according to Jaffe, was Howrey, based in Washington. It also happened to be where he worked as its marketer at the time. The campaign, launched in several publications, including those now owned by ALM Inc., the parent company of The National Law Journal, focused on “image advertising,” he said, “showing the human side of genius.” Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison was the first big law firm to use television advertising. In 2001, it reportedly spent $3.5 million for ads appearing on CNN and its related stations. The ads targeted the high-tech industry. But the firm’s bankruptcy liquidation in 2003 after the slowdown in the technology industry was not a ringing endorsement for utilizing the medium, Jaffe said. Last year, another firm ventured into television land. New York’s Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft bought time on MSNBC’s simulcast of the Don Imus radio program, which four months later was canceled, along with the radio show, after Imus made racial slurs against the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. Today, images of light bulbs, courthouses, scales of justice, animals and fish continue to pervade law firm print ads. For these ads and other marketing efforts, firms generally budget between 3% and 5% of their revenues, said Ross Fishman, chief exceleration officer of Ross Fishman Marketing in Highland Park, Ill. One of the reasons firms may be stymied in their advertising ventures is that most of them devote the same amount of money � and not enough of it, according to the ad people � whether business is good or bad. “I get people who call me up and say, ‘The firm’s in trouble, we’ve got to spend some money on marketing,’ ” said Fishman. The time to spend those ad dollars, he said, is before business takes a downturn. Another challenge for law firms is that they are confined to making decisions about advertising as a partnership. A firm may take the path of least resistance to appease the litigator, the tax attorney and everyone in between, rather than go with a campaign that may be edgier and better. “It’s more likely to be based on what management will allow rather than what makes the most sense,” Buchdahl said. One firm that appears to take a more progressive approach is Wilmington, Del.-based Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor. The 110-attorney firm, which has three Delaware locations and an office in New York, spends between 7% and 14% on marketing, said firm Chairman James Patton Jr., who handles most of the decisions. Some of its marketing moves have been trial-and-error, such as a billboard in Delaware with a message that was subtle. “Too subtle, as it turned out,” Patton said. He and the firm’s other leaders have devised a two-pronged advertising approach. First, it has a national campaign designed to net referrals from bigger law firms that can steer clients to its bankruptcy and intellectual property practices. Most of those efforts are put into trade journals and newsletters that have a national reach. The other prong is maintaining recognition in the local community to help bolster the firm’s real estate, tax and business practices. That requires more on-the-ground marketing, in addition to local advertising. Both of those strategies, Patton said, are the “only way to make sure the firm’s name carries some recognition.”

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