5 Reasons Law Firm Advertising Fails

A few months back, Jordan Furlong penned one of his annoyingly insightful articles (“The Problem With Lawyer Advertising”) in which he noted the lack of client focus in most legal advertising, and suggested that marketing is one area where the coming wave of competition from “non-lawyer” entities will soon have them eating your lunch. It is a provocative thesis, and Furlong buttresses it with a link to an extremely compelling 90-second TV spot for British legal franchise Quality Solicitors.

I thought it would be worthwhile to dig a little deeper into WHY legal advertising isn’t consistently better than it is. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. It’s made by lawyers. 

Lawyers do a vast array of things incredibly well but the sad truth is making ads is not one of them, and in my experience law firm marketing campaigns frequently have their genesis on a partner’s desk. Richard Susskind has spoken about it being part of the “hubris” of the legal profession that lawyers think we can pick up another discipline over a weekend. There is no shame and much merit in knowing where your expertise ends and calling in the experts in other disciplines to work their magic on your behalf. After all, that great Quality Solicitors ad wasn’t done in-house – it was created by one of the world’s biggest ad agencies. Watch this 8-minute “behind the scenes” video with the spot’s creative director to get a glimpse of just how much marketing strategy and specialized work in areas like casting, music direction and technical development goes into a spot like this. Then ask yourself if Don in the corner office of your firm who bills 2200 hours a year structuring international tax treaties has the time, aptitude, experience and mindset to do that kind of thinking. The evidence to date suggests otherwise.

2. It’s made for lawyers (or more specifically, committees of lawyers).

We all agree that clients are great things to have and that the purpose of advertising is to attract more of them. But before any law firm ad or marketing piece can go out into the world to do its noble work, it first has to make it out the front doors of your firm. That means running the gauntlet of the law firm marketing committee. Whatever the size and scope of the official committee, the unofficial approval authority is typically most (or in smaller firms all) partners in the firm. What survives is frequently lowest common denominator work that doesn’t unduly ruffle the collective partnership feathers. This is where the relatively flat management structure of law firm partnerships is at a significant disadvantage to more hierarchical corporate entities where a small handful of executives call the marketing shots. One of Canada’s better-known ad agencies is named Taxi. The name reflects the founders’ view that any advertising project has the greatest likelihood of success if key decision-makers are limited to the number that can comfortably share a cab together. Because the internal approval process within law firms is usually so daunting, the larger mission of attracting clients with a compelling ad often gets lost in favour of meeting the immediate challenge of getting SOMETHING past the phalanx of independence-minded partners with veto power. It’s an old saw – too many chefs spoil the soup – and it is especially true in legal marketing.

3. It’s About Lawyers.

More from Furlong:

With few exceptions, lawyer-formulated or lawyer-approved marketing campaigns focus on lawyers’ qualifications and accomplishments. . . the QS ad succeeds precisely because it appeals to what consumers will respond to, not lawyers. You’d think that would be elementary, but for the legal profession, this kind of insight seems almost revelatory.

And later:

Most lawyer marketing and advertising campaigns are about what lawyers think is important, not what clients feel is important.

Why does this happen you ask? See points 1 & 2, above.

4. It tells me instead of showing me. 

Lawyers are verbal. Words and documents are our lifeblood. Call up the three most recent powerpoints you’ve received from lawyers and chances are they will be completely awash in text (with a few bullets thrown in for style) despite the fact powerpoint is a visual medium. Most good advertising has a very strong visual component. Most legal marketing doesn’t. It should.

5. If your ad were a person, his name would be Blandy Blanderson.

I’ve already spoken of the lowest common denominator phenomenon that hinders legal marketing. Unfortunately, creating an ad that can make it through the internal approval process usually means creating an ad that fits multiple partner perceptions of what lawyer marketing should be – resulting in the frequent perpetuation of legal marketing clichés galore – handshakes, columns, partners at the boardroom table. Adherence to precedent is incredibly important in law and incredibly unhelpful in marketing. Bill Bernbach is widely considered one of advertising’s all-time greats. I thought I’d close with his thoughts on why creativity fuels good marketing:

“The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.” 

William Bernbach, quoted in “Bill Bernbach said . . .” (1989), DDB Needham Worldwide. 


  1. My (curmudgeonly) summary of your column.

    Advertising for lawyers fails because, as a profession, we’re not prepared to admit that, once one allows advertising at all, if one wants the most effective advertising, then it’s no different than advertising for any other service.

    Because, of course, it’s not.

    One question I’d ask. How many of your profession are prepared to be that blunt to your prospective clients.

    After all, telling many lawyers that, in the advertising sense, his or her service is no different than the sex trade, or used car sales, will offend.

  2. @David, I think the point being made is that lawyers overestimate their ability to market their services to their clients. Lawyers expect clients to defer to their expertise and should be prepared to defer to the expertise of professional marketers.

  3. David –

    It’s a good question. It brings to mind another Susskind quote: “It’s hard to tell a room full of millionaires their business model is broken.” Despite that, I think some agencies do, but it begets another issue – what happens AFTER the 32 year old “kid” with the long hair and the preposterous eyeglasses from the hip ad agency has told the room full of partners that his team will nail this assignment because it’s going to be just like selling shoes, sex or soda? The meeting is politely but quickly wrapped up, the in-house marketing director or office administrator who invited Mr. Goofy Ad Guy is raked over the coals for her lack of judgement and wasting the partners’ time, and the firm proceeds to either cancel the project, produce an ad in-house (mindful of what happens to “out-there” ideas), or hires someone to execute Don the tax partner’s idea because outsiders don’t/can’t understand what this firm is all about.

    Law firms and ad agencies don’t naturally play nice together. That’s why somebody like Ross Fishman (U.S.-based lawyer-turned-legal-marketer) has built such a strong record in this arena. Ross is able to take the insights and techniques of great general advertising and implement them in the legal context because a) he is a great communicator and is able to speak truth to power in a way lawyers understand and appreciate instead of being offended about, and b) he has the legal credentials of several years as a practicing lawyer that afford him the credibility around the partnership table that lawyers do not give to “outsiders”. My own agency is modelled very much along these same lines with several of us in the lawyer-facing roles having practiced law ourselves. I think it makes firms more willing to listen to what we have to say, and hopefully bridges some of that historic divide between the two worlds.

  4. Doug,

    That’s why somebody like Ross Fishman(U.S.-based lawyer-turned-legal-marketer) has built such a strong record in this arena. Ross is able to take the insights and techniques of great general advertising and implement them in the legal context because… he is … able to speak truth … in a way lawyers understand and appreciate instead of being offended about,

    He calls us solicitors and not hookers?

    (The issue I’d be curious about – but one irrelevant to this topic – is why they’d be offended by the truth put plainly. Ego is one answer.)

    Legal advertising is not supposed to breach the the ethics of the profession, whatever that means for the jurisdiction where the adds occur. Your hands are tied by your client’s belief in what’s proper – not just what’s right or wrong.

    Like many Canadians of a certain age, I grew up in an area that hd US as well as Canadian TV stations, in the days before cable replaced TV antennnas. So we saw the first of the US adds for lawyers – usually for personal injury litigants. I thought they were very effective precisely because they were no different in content than adds washing machines or used cars. But usually funnier with even less taste. They were wasted on me, but then I wasn’t their target.


  5. Bart,

    In my experience, most lawyers don’t overestimate their abilities to market. Rather, again in my experience, many (for whatever reason) weren’t prepared to shill. (That may be changing). Again, in my experience, for many lawyers, the scope of what is pejorative shilling is far broader than what it is for marketers.

    Let me try it this way. Once upon a time, Sydney Carton’ good deed might have been described as the limit of valid professional advertising.

    Doug made the point far more clearly in the first paragraph of his reply.


  6. Words matter in law. I believe that the Freudian slip(!) in Doug’s reply using the phrase “speak truth to power” in the use of advertising in the legal environment gives the game away. Serious discussion, serious use of words ? The misuse of that venerable phrase in a discussion on advertising is scandalous. Advertising, or huckstering as it was called in the past, has a sorry and sad past, present and future. And can we forget the oxymoron, new and improved. The threat to the practice to law is not in advertising, nor is the solution to be found in advertising.

  7. Doug’s post (following on Jordan’s) and most of the follow-up comments are excellent. But this former lawyer and Director of Marketing wants to ask a deeper question: why is it that people have to constantly re-discover these same observations decade after decade? My answer is a deeper, underlying truth about law firm marketing – law firms, almost uniquely in the business world, refuse to routinely survey their clients. If they did what almost every other business does regularly, it would become so crushingly obvious what clients want to hear, that law firms would respond accordingly – and quickly. Without regular surveys (and commitments to act on them), we will continue this endless cycle – just wait for the posts on this topic in, say, two years’ time!

  8. Doug,
    I don’t think this tells the complete story. Part of the reason why lawyers don’t do as you suggest are the restrictions we’ve placed on ourselves in the legal community, and perhaps it’s time to revisit or reinterpret them. In Ontario they’re detailed in Rule 3.02 of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

    For example, I agree that Quality Solicitors ad is wonderfully executed, but comes carefully close to what the commentary to this rule could describe as,

    g. using testimonials or endorsements which contain emotional appeals.

    Closer to home, we’ve recently seen the emergency of the new Personal Injury Alliance (PIA), comprised of McLeish Orland, Oatley Vigmond, and Thomson Rogers. I am a huge fan of all three of these firms and what they’ve accomplished, but the daily radio ads here in Toronto and their website states,

    Three of Canada’s top ranked personal injury law firms [emphasis added]

    The PIA also lists a number of cases telling success stories and testimonials, including the amount of damages (often in the millions).

    The same commentary to the Rules also lists examples of marketing that may contravene this rule as,

    a. stating an amount of money that the lawyer has recovered for a client or referring to the lawyer’s degree of success in past cases, unless such statement is accompanied by a further statement that past results are not necessarily indicative of future results and that the amount recovered and other litigation outcomes will vary according to the facts in individual cases;
    b. suggesting qualitative superiority to other lawyers;

    It sort of begs the question, if you cannot emphasize in marketing the relative advantage that your law firm offers, i.e. some measure of qualitative superiority, what exactly is the purpose of such marketing aside from simply putting your name in front of the potential client?

  9. Omar,

    I agree with you about restrictions within legal community but there have got to be better ways to differentiate than being a “top lawyer fighting for millions”. What about differentiating on being supportive, helpful and valuable.

    And I’m sure one can include emotional appeal without including testimonials or endorsements and rather lead with visual cues, like all other marketing. Well maybe not car dealerships.

  10. Dmitri,
    You’re right, lawyers tend to focus on completely different outcomes and indicators of success than clients necessarily do.
    Part of the role of social media should be to make lawyers more personable. Ideally.