Forty years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court held that lawyers had a First Amendment right to advertise their services—likely to the dismay of late-night TV viewers everywhere.

While plaintiffs lawyers got busy asking people if they’d been hurt in an accident  (and providing a 1-800 number to talk about it), Big Law over the past four decades has taken a risk-averse approach to ads, with a few very notable exceptions.

Arnold & Porter “Tombstone” (1997)

Still, despite conservative advertising campaigns among most large firms, there has been a defined evolution in how they use their ad spend, from so-called tombstone ads—those just-the-facts announcements of new partners and practices that proved nearly as riveting as their name indicated—to flying elephants to tweets.

The first big wave of law firm advertising occurred during the tech boom of the late 1990s. Firms started investing in brand and image building with gusto, especially those on the West Coast. That ad boom fizzled with the dot-com collapse but picked up steam in the mid-2000s as a rush of mergers created more national firms trying to enter new markets and develop more practice areas.

The heyday for law firm print advertising was just before the recession hit in 2008.

“We had gotten to the point where people understood that advertising worked and that it was a valid medium,” said law firm ad man Ross Fishman, at Fishman Marketing. “After the recession, the major publications that law firms used to advertise their services fell off so dramatically that some 150-page magazines turned into what looked like pamphlets.” (Tell us about it, Fishman.)

Some firms were definitely bolder than others. Bingham, for example, grabbed our attention with baby-cradling bears. Womble Carlyle showed us a bulldog playing Twister.

Orrick 2004 ad

“The further west you went, the more open-minded it got,” said Ralph Baxter, the former chairman of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe who helped spearhead the San Francisco-based firm’s ubiquitous “O” ad campaign in the early 2000s. Baxter said the ads were a big piece of Orrick’s expansion from a few hundred lawyers to the 900-plus that it has today.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona on June 27, 1977, stemmed from a regulation of the Arizona Bar that prohibited lawyer advertising. John Bates was a partner in a law firm that provided legal services to moderate-income people who did not qualify for legal aid.

In a 5-4 decision, Justice Harry Blackmun’s opinion said that lawyer advertising, although commercial speech, still warranted First Amendment protection and that it served significant social interests by informing the public of legal services available. And, thus, the law firm ad was born.

Before the 2008 recession, Big Law spent a small portion of its budgets on advertising, said Fishman, who explained that no current data tracks exactly how much major firms set aside for advertising. Once the recession hit, ad spends plummeted, he said.

“Everyone seemed to just pull the plug on ad expenditures because the optics of that seemed wrong, when you’ve just fired 100 of your good friends down the hall,” he said.

Ad Vanguards

Many of the law firms that were vanguards when lawyer advertising was new have since folded or merged into larger firms, including Howrey, Heller Ehrman and Edwards Wildman Palmer. Coincidence? Probably, Baxter said.

The fact that firms were risk-takers in advertising didn’t necessarily mean they were overly risky in running their firms. The demise of those firms likely was due to missteps on several fronts, he said.

“You have to manage all the soft business issues and the hard business issues,” he said. “If you’re throwing a Band-Aid on it [with ads], it’s not going to work.”

One of the most aggressive advertisers was Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, the San Francisco firm that flourished during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and went bankrupt in 2003 following the bust. Former Brobeck chairman Tower Snow helped developed TV ads designed to catch the eye of emerging tech companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Brobeck was the first and probably the only “prestigious corporate law firm” to do TV advertising, Snow said.

 

The marketing campaign helped double the revenues of Brobeck in a three-year period, Snow said.

Today, law firm marketing has grown more targeted and strategic, especially with the advent of social media, said Tricia Lilley, chief marketing and business development officer at Fox Rothschild. Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn have enabled specific practice and industry groups to connect, with far more precision, to the markets they want to reach and, in many cases, have done away with the need for pricey broad-scale advertising campaigns, she said.

Attorney-authored blogs also have helped expand a firm’s reach and create business opportunities, Lilley said. Fox Rothschild hosts nearly 35 attorney blogs.

“It’s a real credibility builder,” she said.

That’s not to say that more conventional law firm advertising is dead. K&L Gates; Bowman and Brooke; Butler Snow; Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton and many other major firms consistently run print ads. But most Big Law ads remain largely unchanged from 10 years ago. We still see crouching cheetahs on the African plain and blurry images of office professionals providing “solutions” to clients.

The bolder law firm ads continue to come from midsize and smaller firms, Fishman said.

“Larger firms have larger committees and more varied constituencies to consider,” Fishman said. “Many believe that they’re already well known and doing quite well, so they feel that they have less to prove and more to lose.”

Contact Leigh Jones at ljones@alm.com. On Twitter: @LeighJones711.