Yesterday morning, I was in Dallas, giving a presentation to members of the National Association of Bar Executives (NABE), which brings together the professional staff leaders of both voluntary and mandatory bar associations across the U.S. (and occasionally Canada, although there were no Canadians at this meeting).
I spoke to the NABE conference about the future of bar associations and suggested a number of new themes or pillars upon which 21st-century bar associations could be built. One of these was "aspiration" — my belief that most lawyers aspire to the law as a higher calling; they deeply appreciate and cherish their profession and are immensely proud to be a member of it. These lawyers seek out others who feel the same way, and they will be drawn to an organization that is equally and demonstrably invested in this vision.
There are a number of ways in which bar associations can show their commitment to aspiration: take the lead on true public-interest issues, even (maybe even especially) if they don't always coincide with the best financial interests of lawyers. Emphasize the widespread practice of pro bono, which is an irrefutable demonstration of lawyers' commitment to social justice. Enhance the image of the law and the legal profession, but do it in quantifiable ways that matter to the public.
But there is one thing, I told the NABE audience, that you do not want to do. You do not want to invest in an advertising campaign to improve the image of lawyers. These things, I said, never work out the way you hope.
So what did I see, upon my return to Canada, on the front page of The Globe And Mail this morning? "Tired of being the butt of jokes, Ontario lawyers plan image overhaul," a report on the launch of the Ontario Bar Association (OBA)'s new image campaign. I'm going to annotate this article for you, because it illustrates, better than I could ever explain, why lawyer image campaigns are a bad idea.
A few disclaimers to start: I worked for the Canadian Bar Association (of which the OBA is a branch) for ten years. I occasionally do work for the CBA and I still count many friends in both locations (although neither may necessarily be the case after this post). I was involved with a similar image enhancement campaign at the CBA early last decade, and I saw first-hand just how little these efforts move the needle on the public perception of lawyers.
Here's the fundamental problem with image enhancement campaigns: they remind everyone, in spectacular fashion, that you have a terrible image. Nobody embarks on a campaign to change people's perception of them unless that perception is really negative, and campaigns to change that perception normally just provoke people to remember and reassert why they feel that way in the first place.
In the result, by trying to move people away from their negative beliefs, you end up breaking the cardinal rule of public relations: don't repeat the slander. As you'll see, this article demonstrates that rule in spades.
What do you call 18,000 determined lawyers with a generous war chest?
Answer: the Ontario Bar Association, which, fed up with being the butt of negative jokes about their profession, is launching a public-relations campaign on Thursday.
Not an auspicious start. "We're rich, and we're declaring war on your perception of us."
The object: to persuade people that, far from their time-worn image as greedy and over-aggressive manipulators, lawyers are actually problem-solvers, pillars of their communities and an indispensable cog in a healthy democracy.
Let's start a count of negative words and images about lawyers in this article: "greedy," "over-aggressive," "manipulators" — each receiving higher billing and more attention than the nice words later in the sentence.
… Brian Howlett, creative director for Agency59, said that lawyers' intelligence level and confidence may also be a turnoff.
"There is probably a bit of envy," Mr. Howlett said. "There may also be that insecurity you get when there is someone in the room who is smarter than you. The insight that stood out for us was that we all speak well of our individual lawyers, so why doesn't it transfer when people look at the whole industry?"
Seriously? The PR agency's head actually told the country's national newspaper that people are jealous because lawyers are so much smarter than they are? "Lawyers intimidate you because you're stupider than them." I can safely predict that this one line will get more play than the rest of the image campaign put together, and will undermine whatever good the campaign might do.
… "Criminal defence lawyers are the bottom of the barrel," [Ms. Jeethan] said. Not only are most of them poorly paid, Ms. Jeethan said, but the revulsion people feel for accused criminals is transferred to their lawyers."
"People say that lawyers are liars; that they are manipulative people who will turn any shade of truth gray," she said. "It's a sad thing because at the end of the day, this is a helping profession. You are an advocate for someone, representing their interests in society and in the courtroom."
I feel bad for Ms. Jeethan, who fell prey to the natural inclination to recite our sins before seeking correction and forgiveness. But this is a classic example of repeating the slander. "Bottom of the barrel," "poorly paid," "revulsion," "liars," "manipulative," "turn any shade of truth gray" (that last one is a nice turn of phrase, actually). If you were crafting an attack piece on lawyers, you could scarcely have chosen better language. Once again, the positive things, because they're trailing in the paragraph, have less impact.
[Mr. Sweeney] said lawyers feel deeply underappreciated for their social contributions and the role they play in solving problems. In fact, Mr. Sweeney said, lawyers devote a great deal of time to negotiating and mediating outside the courtroom; contributing legal expertise to charities and community boards; and, as politicians, helping ensure that legislation and regulations are legally sound.
See, here's the problem: "lawyers feel deeply under-appreciated." That's why this campaign, and all campaigns like it, was funded and launched: because lawyers feel they don't get the credit and adulation they deserve. But this is also why these campaigns fail, because people don't care if lawyers feel under-appreciated. It's not a problem for them. It doesn't bother them in the slightest.
It does bother them that lawyers — whom they perceive, accurately, to be among the more prestigious, well-connected, and higher income-earning groups in the country — still aren't satisfied. And they resent the implication that they're the ones at fault, for failing to appreciate the beneficent presence of the legal profession in their lives. We all know people who complain about how they never get the credit they deserve. We all find these people universally annoying.
Oh, and by the way: pointing out that lawyers are also politicians is not what I would call a surefire way to improve the public's opinion of us.
"We are trained to think critically about issues; to argue appropriately; to advocate on behalf of a position," Mr. Sweeney said. "Those are skills we value. Words are what we use."
This is a great example of the disconnect between how lawyers think and how everyone else thinks. From a lawyer's point of view, these are all important, positive, and admirable attributes. From everyone else's point of view, these are, at best, neutral. And when lawyers say, "We advocate on behalf of a position … words are what we use", people hear, "We'll say whatever our clients want us to say to help them get what they want." That might not be what we mean, but it's what people hear, and they have at least some cause to believe it.
"The typical campaign would have painted them as the champion of justice and put them on a pedestal," Mr. Howlett said. "Our objective is to humanize the lawyer, to take them off the pedestal."
It's safe to say the pedestal is out of play.
"We knew this couldn't be done overnight," Mr. Howlett said. "We aren't launching a new flavour of Coca-Cola, where people decide in a week if they are going to like it. We are working toward an attitudinal shift.
The launch of New Coke, most likely the biggest marketing disaster in business history, is not an example I would have used to describe my clients' PR situation.
And finally, here's the capper: the sidebar that accompanies the article. Because what else should you expect, in a story about lawyers' image, but that the lawyer jokes would come rolling out?
There are a plethora of clichés and misperceptions about lawyers – and accompanying jokes.
THEY ARE GREEDY
What's the difference between a mosquito and a lawyer?
One is a blood-sucking parasite, the other is an insect.
THEY ARE DISREPUTABLE
Why do they bury lawyers under 20 feet of dirt?
Because deep down, they're really good people.
THEY ARE DISHONEST
Why should lawyers wear lots of sunscreen when vacationing at a beach resort?
Because they're used to doing all of their lying indoors.
THEY DON'T HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOUR
What's the problem with lawyer jokes?
Lawyers don't think they're funny, and no one else thinks they're jokes.
Now, to be clear, I expect better than this of the Globe and of Kirk Makin, the author of this story: this sidebar is the worst type of recycled cheap-shot filler. But the media's response to a story like this is entirely predictable. There are lawyers right now complaining about how the Globe took quotes out of context, paid more attention to the stereotypes than to the reality, and used the campaign to poke more fun at lawyers. But this is the nature of the beast. If anyone was seriously anticipating a warm, glowing tribute to the graces of the legal profession to emerge from this campaign launch, they were not remotely familiar with the modern press.
So, let's recap all the negative terminology used in this article about a lawyer image enhancement campaign:
Bottom of the barrel
turn any shade of truth gray
Here's the bottom line: when you start talking about your bad image, people think about your bad image. More importantly, they see that your image is the most important thing to you — not the reality that informs your lives or their lives. Lawyers who launch image improvement campaigns come across to those they hope to reach as vain, self-regarding and pompous. Worse, they come across as out of touch about the real problems real people have with the real justice system.
Lawyers constantly say that if only people knew how much lawyers contributed to society, they would appreciate lawyers more. This is not true. Even when people learn about lawyers' societal contributions and (perhaps grudgingly) admit these are good things, they tend to regard these as ancillary to lawyers' primary function and overriding behaviour, and probably interpret it as self-serving.
If lawyers want to improve their image, we can start by improving reality. Make the justice system swifter, more transparent and more even-handed. Find ways to make the price of lawyers' talents and efforts affordable to more than 20% of the population. Push harder for principled conduct rules and fewer obstructive tactics in litigation. And stop trying to put out of business lower-cost competitors who might be able to serve the very people who think so poorly of us in the first place. Think more and do more about the reality of clients than about the image of lawyers.
The one thing you learn when you try to improve your image is all the reasons why your image is so bad. If lawyers want better public perception, we need to understand why it's so bad in the first place.