In an increasingly competitive economic environment, a growing number of law firms are trying to create brand images that will set them apart from their competitors. To do so, they are developing sophisticated marketing campaigns complete with print, radio and television advertisements, even relying at times on kitschy slogans once commonly used to sell consumer goods.
For example, Hale & Dorr, based in Boston, uses ads with fluorescent colors and the slogan, "When Success Matters." The ads proclaim the firm as counsel to innovators, visionaries and change agents.
In San Francisco, the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe has built a campaign around the letter "O." An advertisement for its intellectual property litigation displays a green life raft in an O shape and tells clients to "grab hold of Orrick." Another, a globe with a cut-out circle, declares that "the global economy is an Orrick business."
And in Winston-Salem, N.C., the firm Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice illustrates its slogan, "Our lawyers mean business," with a bulldog. The mascot, named Winston, has appeared on airport billboards, coffee cups, T-shirts and mouse pads. "Is it serious?" said Pressly M. Millen, a partner and the chairman of the client development committee at Womble Carlyle. "Of course not. But if the idea is to be noticed and get name recognition, it's certainly done that for us."
Law firms have wrestled with the ethical question of whether and how to advertise since the Supreme Court lifted the prohibition in 1977. For years, most of the advertising was sedate and passive, often confined to small notices in trade publications. But as competition for clients increased, some firms began to look for a new and more effective ways to attract clients.
"I find some of the ads revolting in terms of taste and content," said William B. Dunn, a partner at the law firm Clark Hill in Detroit and special adviser to the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Ethics and Responsibility. "It's a shame if people are persuaded by some of those ads." He said that aside from some general prohibitions against false and misleading ads, there were few restrictions that state bar associations could place on advertising.
Although many firms have had marketing programs for years, only recently have some started to apply the techniques used by corporations and financial service firms to buff their images.
"Law firm advertising has really broken free," said Burkey Belser, president of Greenfield/Belser, a design firm in Washington that has helped more than 200 firms with advertising campaigns. "Law firms have gotten over the hurdle of whether it feels comfortable to advertise at all, and then once over that hurdle, are doing very creative advertising."
David R. Brink, a retired lawyer in Minneapolis and a past president of the American Bar Association, said that "as long as the ads are demonstrably true, they are probably all right from an ethical point of view."
"But from the point of view of taste," Mr. Brink said, "that's something else." He said that while the theory of advertising is sound, some lawyers "might regret the loss of more tasteful and seemingly genteel ways of yesteryear."
Experts say sophisticated advertisements, client forums and other marketing efforts are crucial in an environment in which firms must find ways to separate themselves from the competition.
"There might be 50 or 100 great firms," said Sylvia L. Coulter, marketing director at Hale & Dorr and president of the Legal Marketing Association, which has 1,500 members. "How do you tell which one to go to?"
For many firms, the answer, increasingly, is branding, with some firms trying to push the envelope to attract attention. A survey by the Legal Marketing Association found that half of all firms have recently conducted a branding campaign although most were relatively modest.
Womble, Carlyle was one of the first large firms to place billboards in airport kiosks, Mr. Millen said, and it took its bulldog campaign to the radio a few weeks ago.
Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison in San Francisco shocked the legal world this year by becoming the first nationwide firm to advertise on television, a forum traditionally reserved for personal injury lawyers. The firm's $3.5 million campaign included four 30-second commercials on the CNN cable network, with the computer graphics designed by the same company, Digital Domain, that produced them for the movies, "Titanic," "The Matrix" and "The Terminator," the law firm's marketing director, David Geyer, said.
"We think the early-mover advantage brings us this perception of being out front," Mr. Geyer said, "and it's my experience that clients want to work with firms that are out front on issues."
On one of its television spots, an airplane stalls and descends toward the ocean. Then an oversized hand lifts it safely back toward the sky. On another, a train is speeding over a mountain pass and the giant hand reaches down to straighten the curves out of the track. Each spot ends with the firm's tagline, "Brobeck: When Your Future Is At Stake." The airplane ad was temporarily withdrawn after Sept. 11 and also after the jetliner crash in New York on Monday.
Mr. Geyer said that the advertisements "leave no impression we are chasing ambulances." He noted that when Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) became the first consulting agency tied to an accounting firm to advertise on television in the late 1980's, it was the fifth largest, while PriceWaterhouse was the leader. "Ten years later," he said, "their positions have reversed."
Mr. Geyer attributes part of the firm's growth to marketing efforts built around a strategy of "awareness, contact and closure."
According to The American Lawyer magazine, the firm has risen to the 14th largest in the nation with revenue last year of $476 million, a 52 percent increase over the previous year from the 33th largest in 1997, with $250 million in revenue.
But others are skeptical that law firms will be able to create an effective brand image that will distinguish one from another.
"Marketing professionals in law firms have been led to believe that for a very modest investment, they can achieve the kind of `brand' that is being achieved by the big accounting firms and other professional services firms," said Mark T. Greene, managing director of FGI Research, a marketing research company. "That's simply not going to happen for anything close to the marketing expenditures law firms have been making."
Mr. Greene noted that large corporations normally spend $100 million to $200 million on a marketing campaign for a product. Law firms generally spend about 2 percent of their gross revenues, and the average expenditure is about $136,000, according to the association's survey. Marketing costs for accounting firms average about 7 percent to 10 percent of gross revenue.
But Norm Rubenstein, chief marketing officer at Orrick, said that law firms could still achieve name recognition over time, despite modest budgets, by aiming at a smaller audience.
"Individuals who hire law firms are a less expansive universe than the entire buying public," Mr. Rubenstein said, "and the investment is different than it is for selling soap or Coca-Cola to every consumer in America."
Another obstacle, experts say, is the insistence of many firms on marketing themselves as "full-service law firms," rather than as leaders in particular fields.
"Law firms always want to be branded as a big firm with great lawyers and great work, but that doesn't get you anywhere," Mr. Greene said. "They haven't had the courage to say, `Here's how we are different,' because doing that is in part saying what you are not. If you say you have the best intellectual property practice, the real estate lawyers are going to be upset."
Julie A. Eichorn, president of Paragon, a consulting firm for professional organizations in Austin, Tex., questioned whether clients are really looking for "one-stop shopping," and said firms needed to do a better job of identifying their expertise and "deciding which piece of the market they want."
Beyond expanding their marketing efforts, law firms have elevated the status of marketing directors, with some being called chief marketing officers and paid partner-level salaries. Many have been lured from consumer products companies and consulting, advertising and accounting firms.
Mr. Geyer of Brobeck, who says he is in the middle range on the partner pay scale, had 15 years of advertising experience at J. Walter Thompson, as well as six years in Pricewaterhouse's marketing department.
Frederick J. Morsches, director of marketing at Foley, Hoag & Eliot in Boston, which has 240 lawyers, came from the card company Hallmark and the consulting firm of McKinsey & Company. Ms. Coulter of Hale & Dorr had nine years of sales experience at Wang Laboratories.
Although law firms are using differing strategies to emerge from the pack, the key, marketing directors and lawyers agree, is creativity.
"Our guiding principle was to try not to look like traditional law firm advertising which distinguishes itself in how boring it is," Mr. Millen said. "Firms can really overdo the stuffiness. The block-letter ads you see printed one after another in legal trade publications are a recipe for being ignored."
CRYSTAL NIX HINES, The New York Times November 15, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.