Chair's Corner

The Chair's Corner: 21st Century Marketing and a Look Back?

David H. Lefton

A recent national legal industry survey found the number-one challenge facing solo and small firm attorneys is acquiring new client business (tinyurl.com/hfweot8). Today, there are more lawyers per capita than at any time in the past, and even though there is a greater need for legal help than in simpler times, competition for new business has increased rather dramatically. According to ABA statistics, in 1975 the U.S. population was 216 million, and there were 405,000 lawyers (1 attorney for every 533 people); in 2015 the U.S. population was 318 million and there were 1.3 million attorneys (1 attorney for every 244 people). In addition to more attorney competition, online resources are growing, further increasing competition for new business. LegalZoom, for one, reportedly has served more than 3 million people. Based on these statistics, effectively marketing your law practice in the 21st century may be critical to your firm’s success.

Today, in many cities across our country, attorney advertising is everywhere. Attorney ads are on billboards, the backs of buses and bus-stop benches, and on television, the radio, and the Internet. Historically, however, attorney advertising is relatively new. For most of the 20th century, the rules of professional conduct completely barred attorneys from engaging in virtually any form of commercial marketing. In fact, in 1908, the first code of ethics adopted by the American Bar Association allowed only for printed business cards. Throughout most of the 20th century, the means for attorneys to engage new business were limited to reputation and word-of-mouth referrals. Late-night television ads, billboards, Yellow Pages ads, and the like were simply not permitted.

Then, in 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350 (1977), concluded that attorney advertising is commercial free speech and attorneys have a constitutional right to advertise. The case in Bates began when two Arizona attorneys placed an ad in The Arizona Republic newspaper quoting their fee for various legal services.

The president of the State Bar of Arizona filed a complaint against the two lawyers, alleging the ad violated an Arizona attorney disciplinary rule that stated:

A lawyer shall not publicize himself, or his partner, or associate, or any other lawyer affiliated with him or his firm, as a lawyer through newspaper or magazine advertisements, radio or television announcements, display advertisements in the city or telephone directories or other means of commercial publicity, nor shall he authorize or permit others to do so in his behalf.

The two lawyers argued that the ban on attorney ads in newspapers violated the First Amendment. The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Court sided with the two attorneys, finding that the disciplinary rule served to inhibit the free flow of commercial information and to keep the public in ignorance.

The Supreme Court rejected several arguments made by the State Bar of Arizona, including, but not limited to, the argument that such ads would have an “adverse effect on professionalism.” The Court found “the connection between advertising and the erosion of true professionalism to be severely strained” and also stated the historical aversion to attorney ads was a “rule of etiquette” rather than a “rule of ethics.”

The Court further found that “the prohibition of advertising . . . serves only to restrict the information that flows to consumers” and that “advertising [is] the traditional mechanism in a free-market economy for a supplier to inform a potential purchaser of the availability and terms of exchange.”

After Bates, attorney marketing began to evolve quickly. I know because I entered the practice of law in the 1980s right in the midst of the attorney marketing boom. My first job out of law school was with Hyatt Legal Services. Joel Hyatt may have been the first attorney to market legal services on television on a routine basis. Hyatt Legal Services commercials appeared routinely on television during the 1980s, and the commercials were very successful. Hyatt Legal Services prospered and quickly spread to many locations throughout the United States.

I worked for Hyatt Legal Services for about a year and learned at a very young age the significant role that marketing can play in generating law firm revenue. While I’d like to think my success at generating revenue at Hyatt was solely related to the fact that I was a great lawyer, the phone rang off the hook because of the popularity of Joel Hyatt’s television commercials. Other attorneys and law firms experienced similar success, and soon attorney marketing exploded to include Yellow Pages, billboards, and late-night television advertising.

However, the days of purchasing a television commercial or Yellow Pages ad and sitting back and waiting for the phone to ring, as many lawyers did in the late 20th century, have long passed us by in favor of other advertising media. While reputation and word-of-mouth referrals are still very important to solo and small firm revenue, reputation and work ethic alone may not create enough client traffic for many solo or small firm attorneys to succeed in the 21st century.

Today, with more lawyers per capita and more online resources available to consumers, in order to remain competitive, many solo or small firm attorneys need to use a wide array of marketing options, such as pay-per-click, social media, blogging, direct mail, live presentations, and search engine optimization (SEO). Further, many solo and small firm attorneys need to be ready to adjust their marketing on a moment’s notice to remain competitive.

Since 1977, attorney marketing has taken a number of forms, and attorney marketing will continue to evolve through the 21st century. Owing to technological innovation, there will be ongoing challenges for solo and small firm attorneys to keep pace and to remain competitive in acquiring new business.

Our goal at the GPSolo Division is to provide resources that enable our members to excel and be “all the attorney they can be” in any environment. This issue of GPSolo magazine is geared toward 21st century attorney marketing and reviews a number of marketing and branding solutions that solo and small firm attorneys can implement today. The articles range from providing tips for making presentations to potential clients and referral sources, SEO, dos and don’ts for e-mail communications, and a variety of networking ideas.

In this day and age, when acquiring new business is more competitive than ever, I hope you find the information in this publication useful and relevant to your law practice.

David H. Lefton

David H. Lefton is Chair of the GPSolo Division. He is an equity partner with Barron Peck Bennie & Schlemmer in Cincinnati, Ohio.