Last Tuesday, two large and prestigious law firms, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal and Jones Day, ran b-to-b branding ads in The Wall Street Journal, presenting themselves as global firms. The ads were a small sign of how far b-to-b marketing among law firms had come since legal advertising was first allowed in 1977.
"Legal advertising, that's been a good growth area," said Scott Schulman, the Journal's senior VP-global sales and marketing. Other firms running in the newspaper include Bingham McCutcheon and Morgan Lewis. "We see the category in a similar state to where accounting firms were five years ago and consulting firms were 10 years ago in discerning the value of advertising."
Over the past few decades, law firms have seen their profession transformed into more of a business with a corresponding emphasis on the bottom line. Large firms looking to grow have increasingly relied on mergers, both in the U.S. and overseas. Smaller firms have specialized in various practices from employment law to intellectual property. Whether large or small, law firms are finding that they are attracting business not so much from personal relationships as they did in the past, but from reputations built by branding.
For many firms, advertising has become a key new rainmaker.
Between 1908 and 1977, lawyers were not permitted to advertise as part of the profession's code of ethics, according to Will Hornsby, staff counsel at the American Bar Association for legal services and author of the book "Marketing and Legal Ethics." In 1977, however, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, ruled that attorneys were allowed to advertise.
For the most part, the first lawyers to take advantage of the new rules were personal injury and bankruptcy attorneys advertising in the Yellow Pages and on cable TV. Corporate law firms, many of which looked upon advertising as unprofessional, were slow to take advantage of the Supreme Court ruling.
But in the early 1990s, the firm Howrey & Simon, led by marketing executive Jay Jaffe, who now runs legal marketing firm Jaffe Associates in Washington, D.C., launched a pioneering and ultimately influential campaign. Bearing the tagline "The human side of genius," the campaign spurred Howrey's growth. It also contributed to the growth of advertising by law firms, which saw the value of such marketing clearly demonstrated.
Gradually, other firms began to follow Howrey's lead. They began branding themselves through advertising and integrated marketing programs. Over the past decade, these firms also began hiring marketing professionals as CMOs rather than giving the responsibility to a partner with a flair for puns.
Among the prime beneficiaries of this trend was Corporate Legal Times, a publication aimed at in-house lawyers at corporations. "When we launched in 1991 very few law firms were advertising," said Nat Slavin, the magazine's publisher.
Initially, Corporate Legal Times' primary advertisers were information technology firms and information providers, such as LexisNexis. Law firms comprised considerably less than a quarter of the magazine's advertising base, Slavin said. But now that figure has increased to about 50%. "Back in 1991 we had maybe half a dozen pages of law firm advertising per issue" Slavin said. "In September, we have about 40."
American Lawyer Media's Corporate Counsel has posted strong year-over-year growth, in part based on strong law firm advertising, according to Jeffrey Morgan, VP-law firm marketing at American Lawyer Media.
In fact, three core legal magazines have posted strong growth so far this year. Corporate Counsel's ad pages were up 29% through July, according to IMS: The Auditor. American Lawyer's and Corporate Legal Times' pages were up 16%.
Law firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart has used the legal trades to help transform its brand as part of a branding campaign that includes both internal and external components under the oversight of Carla Boza. She become the legal profession's first CMO when she joined the firm six years ago. "We were perceived at that point in time as primarily an East Coast firm and in some cases we were perceived as a Pittsburgh firm," said Boza, who credited marketing for part of the transformation. "I think there is clearly a much greater appreciation of that firm as a national entity with national capabilities."
Niche firms are also seeing success from their marketing campaigns. Laner Muchin, an employment law firm based in Chicago, started working on branding itself about three years ago. Earlier this summer, the firm began running ads in Crain's Chicago Business (a sibling publication of BtoB).
Relying on advice from legal marketing consultant Ross Fishman, the chief exceleration officer of Fishman Marketing, Laner Muchin branded itself in its ads as the law firm that always called its clients back in two hours. One ad mocks the stereotypical law firm's lack of responsiveness by showing a stopwatch and asking in the headline, "Still waiting for your lawyer to call you back?"
Joe Yastrow, a partner at Laner Muchin, estimated that the ad has already paid for itself. "Between a dozen and two dozen companies have responded in some way to this, either through actually hiring us for a particular case or asking us to bid on work," he said.
As a partner, Yastrow bills more than 2,000 hours a year, so overseeing the firm's marketing efforts are a sliver of his duties. The firm, like many in the past decade, may be considering hiring a marketing executive to handle the duties.
Fishman, who was both an attorney and marketer with law firm Winston & Strawn before opening his own marketing shop, said the increasing professionalism of legal advertising is a good thing.
"In the past it was about gavels and globes and scales of justice, and much of it still is; however, the imagery that we're using is becoming much more like good advertising should be," he said.