History of Lawyer Advertising and Legal Marketing

Lawyers weren’t always allowed to advertise their professional services, and this history has implications for legal practice today. Many attorneys are hesitant about marketing – especially when it comes to anything beyond the yellow pages or word-of-mouth referrals. Some lawyers don’t advertise at all. If you want to grow your legal practice, but recognize an unspoken tension between being a professional and marketing your legal services, there’s a historical reason behind that.

This article will help you understand the past so you can make informed decisions about how you want to move forward when it comes to marketing and advertising your law firm.

Legal Marketing in the Early Days

The law is, first and foremost, a profession. From the time of the founding fathers through the early 20th century, lawyers have distinguished themselves from merchants or craftsmen on the basis of specialized skills and knowledge that simply were not accessible to the vast majority of the population in those times.

The power and authority that came with that access was offset by an equal sense of responsibility. Beyond billing hourly for their expertise, lawyers were considered officers of the court, expected to serve both their clients and the public interest. They were to uphold the rule of law and adhere to strict codes of ethical conduct.

The earliest lawyers (back in England) viewed themselves as akin to clergy and spoke of being “called” to the bar, rather than “admitted” to the bar – as if obliged by a higher power to help ensure justice and peace in society.

This attitude caused some among these first generations of lawyers to refrain from taking a fee for their services, preferring to separate practicing law from the baser motivations of earning a livelihood. Of course, the practicality of this position was greatly enhanced by their status as members of the nobility or gentry.

As time passed, many state bar associations prohibited lawyers from marketing their services. Such bans were not initially viewed as overly restrictive or unnecessary, even as practicing law became a primary means to make a living. A shared belief persisted that any lawyer “worth their salt” would not need to promote their services because their reputation for integrity and intelligence would be sufficient to gain clients.

How Legal Marketing Changed

Opinions about legal marketing began to change in 1977, when the US Supreme Court decided Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350. In that case, two attorneys in Arizona placed an advertisement that offered information about their practice and legal fees in a local newspaper. Their state bar, which forbade marketing by lawyers, sanctioned the attorneys for that conduct.

On appeal, the Supreme Court held that the disciplinary ruling violated the First Amendment and that Arizona could not restrain the information contained in the attorneys’ advertisement.

This change in legality of marketing by attorneys did not initially change many lawyers’ opinion of marketing though. Many lawyers continued to believe marketing would denigrate the law’s professionalism and dignity.

In fact, this line of argument was central to the State of Arizona’s argument in Bates v. Arizona. The state feared that rampant marketing from attorneys would “tarnish the dignified public image of the profession.” Many of the first lawyers to engage in marketing, especially with TV ads, were viewed by their peers as breaking an unwritten code, even if not any official rules.

With time, the opinion of the legal profession has begun to shift.

As the largest law firms began moving away from the old partnership model focused on individualized clients to engage in commercialization, global firms with full-service offerings emerged. With those changes, law firms adopted more of the trappings that corporate America had taken on long before: an increase in bureaucracy, middle management, and non-lawyer personnel—including marketers.

Nevertheless, the legal field as a whole, and many law firms in particular, have been slow to adapt to these changes.

Trends That Impact Legal Marketing Today

Thinking about law as distinct from other businesses is outdated, at least as relates to marketing, organization, and service delivery. The idyllic picture of the attorney who engages clients by hanging out a shingle and waiting for fellow members of the community to knock on his door is becoming less and less common, and there is little evidence to suggest that the future will see a reversal of trends like:

  • Erosion in the demand for law firms
  • More commoditized legal work
  • Increased price competition

These changes are tied to increased competition from alternative service providers, offshore options, and larger in-house legal teams at corporations. Globalization and technology have not spared the legal industry, and if you fail to adapt in a changing industry you risk being left behind.

Lawyers’ status as public servants and their wide-spread adoption of modern commercial practices are not mutually exclusive. In fact, quite the opposite.

Is equal access to justice furthered when the public views lawyers as aloof, inaccessible, and expensive?

If you’re to serve the public as an attorney, shouldn’t you take steps to reach out and engage your clients in the manner most convenient to them?

Considered in this light, marketing, far from being taboo, becomes an integral part of how you can successfully fulfill your roles as a public servant—now more than ever in the age of globalization and technology.

Why Online Legal Marketing Matters

Chief among the adaptations you must make to remain relevant and develop business is focusing on online or digital marketing. Digital marketing is a broad term that covers a wide variety of activities including:

  • Website – establish a home base for your brand where visitors can find basic information such as your contact information, locations, services, and attorneys, as well as get a sense of your values and competencies
  • Content – write and post articles related to your specialty practice areas and exhibit thought leadership in an online blog to help position yourself as an expert, demonstrate to visitors that you care about solving their legal issues, serve as a valuable jumping-off point to the rest of your website, and empower clients by educating them about legal issues
  • Advertising – increase awareness of your brand and direct visitors to your site from advertisements placed on another website, for a fee; this is particularly impactful when you can identify other websites that your ideal clients are likely to frequent
  • Search engine optimization (SEO) – use proven and experimental strategies to increase your rankings in the algorithm of a search engine (such as Google or Bing) so that a link to your website shows up higher on the page when a searcher enters a relevant query

The importance of marketing online cannot be overstated. More than 20% of all retail purchases occur online, and 81% of shoppers conduct online research before spending their money. People spend an average of more than 6 hours each day online, and even traditional TV advertisements are moving to online channels, both for lawyers and the broader market, because that is the medium viewers are frequenting.

Beyond the sheer number of potential clients roaming the internet, modern consumers want more out of the marketing targeted to them than a basic print advertisement can provide. Customers do not want to simply take in information about a product or service. They want to be a part of the conversation about it. They want to see social proof— evidence that others have purchased a product or service and found it valuable before they are willing to buy it themselves—and, in turn, they want to share their thoughts and experiences with a given product or service.

No medium allows this process to occur as efficiently and on such a large scale as the internet.

The good news is that this is not just something you must do to keep pace with the market; it’s an improvement. Marketing professionals tend to agree that digital marketing usually provides a business with more impact for less cost when compared to TV, radio, or print advertising.

Digital marketing can also be more agile than other forms of advertising. If the content posted on your website is not having the desired effect, you can take it down and replace it fast. This flexibility stands in stark contrast to a print or TV ads where the content is set far in advance without knowing how effective it will be.

So if digital marketing is a necessary and helpful adaptation, how can you take advantage of it?

How to Get Started Marketing Online

The more of an online presence your law firm has, the more potential clients you will be able to reach. And online marketing approaches are often significantly more cost-effective than traditional methods such as billboard and phone book ads.

Effectively engaging in online/digital marketing requires a variety of specialized skills and knowledge such as:

  • Website design
  • Content creation and editing
  • User experience design
  • Customer engagement
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Social media marketing

Unlike traditional approaches, digital marketing is not static. Potential clients can respond to your marketing campaigns in real time, and those interactions can be attached to the campaign itself. Like any relationship, these responses require monitoring, follow up, and, in some cases, reputation management. To be effective with digital marketing, you often need to engage in ongoing interactions across multiple touchpoints.

Digital marketing also requires ongoing technical and content maintenance. For example, search engine rankings are generated relative to your competitors, who may extend far beyond the law firm down the street. The more your competitors spend on search engine optimization, the lower your own search engine rankings will be—like any other ranking, it’s a zero-sum game. Plus, most search engines regularly update and refine the algorithms that provide their search results. Which means a high ranking today doesn’t guarantee a high ranking tomorrow, even if none of your competitors make changes.

Digital marketing is a highly-specialized activity that is never complete.

Think of it like buying an old-fashioned, physical billboard. You want the billboard to communicate effectively and be aesthetically pleasing, but most important is that the billboard be both visible and next to a road where a lot of people drive regularly. The difference with digital marketing is that it’s harder to tell how many people are on the “road.” And the situation can change quickly—a competitor might put up a billboard directly in front of your billboard, or the government may change the highway system overnight so no one drives by your billboard anymore.

Due to these and other challenges as well as the specialized skills it takes to manage them, online advertising usually falls outside of a law firm’s core competencies. Hiring and managing an internal team to do it can be expensive and time-consuming. It often makes sense to outsource your online marketing needs, but choosing the right marketing firm can be difficult and success can be hard to define. The stakes are high, so entrusting client interactions and your public image to a third-party should not be taken lightly.

How LegalMatch Can Help With Your Online Marketing

This is why LegalMatch has developed a unique approach. Most marketing agencies design a campaign for a specific firm, implement it, and then move on to their next client. The goal is for more people to become aware of or find information about the law firm. But even if that goal is achieved, the people reached by any given campaign might not need legal services at that moment, or ever.

LegalMatch focuses on gathering a large pool of potential clients without reference to any specific attorney or firm. This allows an economy of scale and alleviates the potential for miscommunication that can occur when a third-party marketer speaks for you. And it’s effective.

Nearly one million people looking for legal representation visit the LegalMatch website each month. Our member attorneys benefit from that consistent flow of traffic, because we connect those client leads with lawyers in their area who have the expertise they need.

Instead of creating an advertisement for you and hoping potential clients see it and act on it, we regularly deliver batches of potential new clients in your area that are already looking for the type of legal help you provide—they are ready to hire a lawyer immediately.

This approach captures the best of both worlds: harnessing the power and impact of the internet and digital marketing while also retaining your ability to focus on providing first-rate, individualized service to each of your clients. Joining LegalMatch is an easy and effective way for you to take advantage of digital marketing and build your legal practice.

Just read what these happy member attorneys have to say:

In general, the leads that I get from LegalMatch are actually of higher quality than those I used to get in the past from other services. The leads here are people who are really in need of legal services than just somebody asking questions or looking for pro bono services. Noah G., Criminal Law, Warminster, PA

What I like best about LegalMatch is that I don’t have to go out and solicit clients, instead clients just come to you.” Mark M., General Practice, Tulsa, OK

For those considering membership with LegalMatch, it will be an innovative cutting edge tool that puts the control of costs and availability of clients in the palm of your hands, literally. And it is much preferred over Yellow Pages and other media. Anthony P., Family Law, Jacksonville, FL

I have recommended LegalMatch to many of my colleagues. I’d definitely say that it’s a more cost-effective form of advertising. LegalMatch tends to attract a better client base than the more wide-open forms of advertising. Fabian L., Immigration, Philadelphia, PA

LegalMatch places the opportunity at the attorney’s fingertips versus waiting for a prospective client to click an ad on social media or a search engine. Lauren C., Family Law, Chicago, IL

If you’re ready to market and grow your legal practice, request your guest pass and take a look at the case opportunities in your practice area and location today.