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Lawyer Advertising: To Buy or Burn a Billboard

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"As a private person, I have a passion for landscape, and I have never seen one which was improved by a billboard. Where every prospect pleases, man is at his vilest when he erects a billboard. When I retire from Madison Avenue, I am going to start a secret society of masked vigilantes who will travel about the world on silent motor bicycles, chopping down posters at the dark of the moon. How many juries will convict us when we are caught in these acts of beneficent citizenship?"

- David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man.[1]

David Ogilvy’s[2] prophetic feelings 55 years ago continue to accurately capture the mood of most Americans today, especially lawyers when it comes to lawyer billboard advertising. Any discussion with a lawyer about lawyer advertising necessarily includes billboards. The impact of billboards is not limited to landscapes and highway vistas. They have changed the legal business landscape, and not just in Alabama.[3]

No one likes them. Anywhere.

Those lawyers that advertise on billboards would certainly rather attract clients without spending what they are spending on billboards.

Granted, billboards are cheaper than television advertising, which will also come up in those lawyer advertising discussions. And, no one likes them either – for all the same reasons. Those who aren’t advertising on billboards or television, the vast majority of lawyers, would rather join David Ogilvy’s ban of masked vigilantes.

Burn the billboards! Chop them down!

Some believe that lawyer billboard advertising (or any advertising, for that matter) cheapens the profession.

But, is it the fact that the lawyer is advertising that is the problem, or is it the medium? Or, is it the content of the ads? Or, the style?

Mercedes Benz advertises on billboards, yet no one thinks those ads cheapen the Mercedes brand. Most reputable, highly respected, regional, high-dollar, silk stocking, corporate or business law firms advertise – prolifically – though usually not on highway billboards. Those firms have substantial marketing budgets (and staffs) and are strategically intentional about their advertising. They have clever, professionally produced, glossy ads at airports directed to those coming to town on business, in non-legal trade magazines and journals, and in business publications and periodicals. But, somehow those are different, aren’t they? Most have come to accept them. So, maybe we are okay with some advertising? Is it a matter of taste?

Though many lawyers are quick to bemoan advertising’s detrimental effect on the profession and how it offends their sense of good taste, what really chaps their arse is that they don’t have the business they used to have because of the “billboard lawyers.” These advertising lawyers have hit the complaining lawyers directly in the wallet, which is much more painful than a blow to one’s pride in the profession or good taste. If it is any consolation, I’m sure the “billboard lawyers” are just as frustrated and challenged by the “TV lawyers.” And then there’s those who utilize both media – and a host of others. It’s a dog eat dog world.

I remember when lawyers started advertising in and on the telephone directory, and I’m not old. You remember those ads, don’t you? You remember telephone directories, right? And it wasn’t long before everyone gradually ramped up into some form of enhanced listing in the telephone book, if simply to pay a little more for the firm name to be in bold in the white pages or perhaps even a “tasteful” firm listing in the Yellow Pages.

One of my biggest plaintiff cases (I haven’t had enough) was the result of a cold call from someone who saw my name in the Yellow Pages.

Our firm didn’t have an ad per se, though we did pay for an enhanced listing – my name may have been in bold type. Though I’m glad she called, who chooses their lawyer based upon their name listing in the Yellow Pages?

First, a given about lawyer advertising. The U.S. Supreme Court has been very clear – commercial free speech (such as lawyer advertising) cannot be prohibited or unreasonably inhibited. Any regulation which attempts to limit free speech must overcome a high hurdle, especially when it is the regulated who are doing the regulating. Virtually every state which has tried to clear this Constitutional hurdle has failed. While it makes everyone feel better to pound the table, that is exactly what our bar would likely be doing in court defending any attempted regulation.

As the old lawyer instructed his young associate, “If the law is on your side, pound on the law; if the facts are on your side, pound on the facts; if neither is in your favor, pound on the table!”

As a profession, we certainly don’t want to land on our face, especially in a courtroom, where we should know better.

My point? Lawyer advertising is here to stay, like it or not. Besides, most attempts to regulate or legislate morality, good taste, and style, even if Constitutionally acceptable, ultimately fail anyway. So, what do we do about lawyer advertising without throwing the golden goose out with the bath water?

Let’s take a step back and break it down.

Why do lawyers advertise on billboards in a manner that many find offensive? Because it apparently works.

If you have travelled the hinterlands of our great state, you will notice two things about lawyer advertising. First, those lawyers who are billboard advertisers are generally prolific billboard advertisers. Second, everyone is getting into the act.

I recently passed through a small town in Alabama’s Blackbelt – a hot bed for high-dollar litigation in the days before our venue rules (and the makeup of our Supreme Court) changed. Granted, these regions are still a favored venue for the little man’s suit against the evil corporate empires. Every law firm in this small rural circuit (no firm has more than four lawyers) had a billboard. How did that happen? I don’t know for sure, but I can guess.

One firm bought a billboard ad, and then the others said, “Well, if they are going to have one, we have to have one too.” I wonder how those are working? No doubt they are a boom for the local advertising company.

I think that billboards probably work well for the mega-billboard advertisers with a multitude of billboards. In other words, perhaps it is the fact that someone has hundreds of billboards that is driving the business, not that they may have one which happens to be in the right place at the right time when someone is making the decision to hire a lawyer.

Interestingly, a study by a market research firm on the effectiveness of advertising on people driving by them concluded that billboard advertising is effective at getting people to think about concepts (messages in the abstract) but not so effective at communicating a phone number or web address.[4]

To the extent that billboards are effective in securing clients, the question becomes is there ever a right time and place to select a lawyer based on his billboard presence?

The real issue for our profession? People are choosing their attorneys – who will represent them, speak for them, advise them, and guide them through some of the biggest challenges of their lives – based upon the lawyers’ billboards? THAT is the bigger problem and the bigger concern for the profession and, more importantly, the people that it serves.

Instead of trying to stop or shape lawyer advertising on billboards and television through regulation and legislation, maybe greater positive change could be accomplished if the effectiveness of those ads was limited.

The Alabama State Bar is dedicated to promoting the professional responsibility and competence of its members, improving the administration of justice and increasing the public understanding of and respect for the law. . . The ASB has long served a dual role as an advocate for the profession and the public.

What if the state bar were to engage in its own marketing campaign (even on billboards and television) to educate consumers on how to choose a lawyer?

What if the bar were to note the advantages of hiring a local lawyer? Or, the concept of hiring a lawyer rather than purchasing an internet do-it-yourself kit or trying to represent yourself? Such a program would fit squarely within the bar’s mission. And, who is going to complain about that?

[1] Ogilvy, David. Confessions of an Advertising Man. Southbank Publishing, 1963. Page 142. [2] David Ogilvy was a very successful and innovative ad man during Madison Avenues glamorized heydays in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and was an inspiration for the hit TV series Mad Men. [3] Last year, we took my 77-year-old father on the great American road trip to the Grand Canyon. Out trip took us 4,286 miles (72 hours, 14 minutes, but who’s counting) through 14 states, each of which was overrun with lawyer advertising billboards. [4]


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