Saturday, February 9, 2008

There ought to be a law against ads this boring

I worked in law firm marketing for 10 months. The attorneys at the firm were incredibly smart, talented people. But they were also very conservative, and they made most of their decisions based on precedent. As you can imagine, that didn’t leave a lot of room for creativity and breakthrough marketing strategy (ergo my “10 months” in law firm marketing).

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about just how conservative the law firm marketing environment is—and it reminded me why I’m glad I’ve moved on to other things. The debate, in a nutshell:

Advertising by lawyers has long been controversial, with detractors saying it cheapens the profession and proponents asserting that ads foster competition and help educate people about their options. Most states prohibit false or misleading lawyer ads, but some states go further. Tighter -- and some say arbitrary -- restrictions are the trend. South Carolina is currently reviewing a ban on any ad "likely to attract clients by use of showmanship, puffery or hucksterism."

Based on the fact that they’re using the words “puffery” and “hucksterism,” it seems clear that some pretty stuffy folks are driving the No Fun Bus. Need more evidence? How about this example from Syracuse, NY?:

[A]ttorney James Alexander ran a TV spot for his firm showing lawyers offering counsel to space aliens who had crashed their UFO. He also did one with lawyers towering like giants over Syracuse.

Not amused, New York court officials said the ads contained "patent falsities."

"It cannot be denied," wrote assistant New York Attorney General Patrick MacRae in a court filing, "that there is little likelihood that [the lawyers] were retained by aliens, have the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or have stomped around downtown Syracuse, Godzilla-style."

The sad thing is, I don’t think MacRae was kidding. That’s because in law firm advertising, “kidding” is entirely out of the question. What is acceptable? As the Journal reports:

In its advertising rules, the Florida bar specifies content that is permitted: the scales of justice, a gavel, an eagle, columns, and "a plain unadorned set of law books."

Not only is this bizarre, it’s also a little insulting to the audience. MacRae and the Florida bar seem to think their profession’s consumers are unable to (beware of oncoming pun) judge the content of advertisements for themselves. And the guidelines they set are so pointless that they encourage precisely the mockery cited in the Journal story:

[T]he Florida bar...filed a complaint in 2004 against Fort Lauderdale personal-injury attorney Marc Andrew Chandler over ads that featured a pit bull wearing a spiked collar. The Florida Supreme Court sided with the bar in 2005, ruling that pit bulls conjure up images of viciousness. "Were we to approve," the court wrote, "images of sharks, wolves, crocodiles, and piranhas could follow."

Despite these fears, the bar in 2006 approved the use of panthers, the mascot of Miami firm Panter, Panter & Sampedro PA. At least two other Florida firms have images of lions on their Web sites, so far without censure. That panthers and lions have been tolerated bugged the pit bull lawyer, who asked a bar official how the state could favor vicious cats over pit bulls. "I asked him, 'What would you rather deal with, a pit bull or a lion?' " Mr. Chandler says, recalling a 2006 telephone call. "There was silence on the other end. I could hear the sound of crickets chirping in the background."

In the short time I spent in lawyer land, I met a lot of smart people, but only one true marketing innovator: Ross Fishman. Ross presented at a Legal Marketing Association conference I attended, and he made a strong case for the value of differentiation. One highlight was his ability to “predict” the images used in the attendee firms’ ads and websites. Wing tips. Handshakes. Columns. Law books. Gavels. His accuracy made the audience laugh, but it was the nervous laughter of self-recognition. We were all guilty as charged.

But then Fishman showed us a better way. He challenged law firm marketers to think about how their firm and its people differed from the competition. He showed examples of ads that stood out, either because they were unique, extremely well-targeted, or funny. He talked about the power of new media and the possibilities available to law firms willing to take calculated risks. And he discussed the advantages enjoyed by the firms willing to take such risks, since they were so few in number and therefore more likely to get noticed.

Fishman’s advice, in short, was exactly the type of thing that the Patrick MacRaes of the world are railing against. The irony, of course, is that Fishman’s strategies harm no one--including consumers--while those like MacRae do nothing to help consumers while also damaging their profession by making law firms essentially waste their money on boring, me-too ads.

The future of law firm marketing should be an open and shut case in favor of innovation and creativity. My guess, however, is that law firms will continue to err on the side of precedent, with only a select few willing to give innovation and creativity a trial run.

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