Law firms rethink ad approaches

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The last five years have brought an unprecedented explosion of advertising by corporate law firms eager to take on new technology clients. But the sudden downturn in the economy has many law firms that only recently started advertis-ing rethinking their marketing strategies. Now, instead of promoting their expertise in public offerings, law firms are focusing their ad campaigns on tactics, such as mergers and acquisitions, restructuring and still-elusive profitability.

"There has been a de-emphasis on IPO work," said Paul Herrmann, CEO of Herrmann Advertising, Annapolis, Md., which handles work for some 50 law firms. One Texas law firm client recently killed a completed campaign just before it broke, Mr. Herrmann said, because the effort's focus on high-tech companies was no longer in sync with the economy. Through March 9 of this year, 39 public companies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, according to, a Web site in Boston. That's about the same as last year, when 38 had been filed by the same date. The number of bankruptcy filings among public companies increased from 145 in 1999 to 176 in 2000.

Another firm, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, Chicago, last year ran ads urging clients to "Break barriers. Get in. Cash out." That effort stopped running in the fourth quarter. A campaign set to break this month touts the firm's ability to help clients "Focus on profits," "Go to Plan B," "Invent Plan C," and "Keep your perspective in a changing business landscape." Greenfield/Belser, a Washington agency that specializes in legal advertising, created the ads.

Even the once-taboo topic of bankruptcy pops up in ads now. "Bankruptcy is slipping into text," said Burkey Belser, president-creative director at Greenfield/Belser. However, he noted, the shift has been subtle, with firms working it into the ads but reluctant to hype it. "Very few ads lead with bankruptcy, or its euphemism `restructuring'-and why would you, with such a grim subject?"

"I don't think you're going to see bankruptcy advertising by itself," agreed legal consultant Ward Bower of Altman Weil. "A lot of firms don't want to have pessimistic ads."

Although the U.S. Supreme Court paved the way for legal advertising in 1977 by ruling in Bates vs. State Bar of Arizona that lawyers have a First Amendment right to advertise, law firms have been exceedingly slow to market themselves-largely because the corporate bar thought advertising was unseemly.

"After Bates, personal-injury attorneys did all the advertising and the corporate firms said, `We'll never do that,"' Mr. Herrmann said. In recent years, however, spending by law firms has picked up. Total ad spending on legal services (which includes "white shoe" firms as well as personal-injury lawyers) has grown from $156 million in 1996 to $276 million in 2000, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR.

The majority of corporate law-firm spending is in print media; an exception is Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, San Francisco, which runs a campaign on national cable TV, with ads on CNN. Marketing-savvy Brobeck has abandoned plans to run an ad that reads, "Expecting more from your IPO? Did your law firm complete 397 public offerings in the last five years?" according to David Geyer, Brobeck's director of marketing. The firm is still figuring out how to advertise in the softening economy, he said. "The stock market drop has been so precipitous and happened in so short a time that law firms are still not certain how to redirect their marketing efforts."

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