History of legal advertising

The evolution of legal marketing has made it possible for lawyers to grow their firms in ways never before thought possible, and it is considered an essential component of any modern day law firm. However, while legal advertising has seen many milestones in recent years, it was practically prohibited in the United States until the 1970s.

The Origins of Legal Advertising in the U.S.

The pivotal moment in history was 1976, when John Bates and Van O'Steen found themselves faced with a dilemma: violate ethics laws to advertise their services and fees, or watch their legal clinic for low-income individuals wither away due to a lack of clientele. In an effort to save their firm, Bates and O'Steen opted to do the unthinkable and placed a legal advertisement in a local Phoenix, Arizona newspaper. Although their actions drew in scores of new clients, they also drew the ire of the President of the State Bar of Arizona, who quickly filed a complaint in response to their decision to advertise. A hearing panel recommended a six-month suspension, which was later reduced to censure after a series of appeals. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. It was eventually overturned on the grounds that truthful advertisement of the availability and terms of routine legal services was protected under the First and Fourth Amendments. Ultimately, Bates vs. State Bar of Arizona opened the door for legal advertising by declaring unconstitutional the strict ethical rules that had previously constrained attorneys.

Legal Advertising Begins

In the wake of this landmark ruling, a burst of consumer-oriented legal advertising ensued, with personal injury lawyers grabbing the reins. Advertisements depicted attorneys standing in front of bookshelves adorned with volumes of legal texts, or sitting casually on the edge of a mahogany desk with the scales of justice placed prominently in the background. Toll-free numbers were gobbled up, and the trusty Yellow Pages became instrumental to the success of personal injury practices. However, it was not until the end of the 1970s that the first inklings of actual legal advertising began to emerge in the form of billboards, television commercials, bus signs and newspaper ads.

The Evolution of Legal Advertising

Just as the wheels were starting to spin on the fledgling legal advertising machine, The American Lawyer published salary information of big-firm lawyers, which sent lawyers scrambling for employment at mega firms and subsequently increased competition both within and among firms. This increased competition created an even greater need for firms to gain advantages over each other and find novel ways to connect with potential clients. Advertising mania slowly began to trickle-down through the industry into smaller firms, and strategies improved considerably as the daring and creative thinking of marketing experts began to deploy new tactics in the fight to promote their firms.

As the Internet-era boomed in the mid-1990s, online marketing offered more creative and far-reaching opportunities for law firms to promote their services. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, most law firms had developed their own websites. And within the next ten years some savvy firms began turning their advertising dollars to the internet to gain a competitive advantage. This involved new internet advertising platforms such as paid search advertising and display ads as well as sophisticated topic-specific non-branded website launches (e.g., nursinghomeabuse.org) and backlinking campaigns.

Modern Day Legal Advertising

The days of putting an ad in the yellow pages and sitting back and waiting for all the calls to start coming in have long passed us by. Today, law firms use a versatile array of online and traditional advertising mediums such as direct mail, television commercials, pay-per-click (PPC), display and retargeting advertising, social media and mobile advertising. Firms are required to have a sophisticated arsenal at their disposal and be ready to change it up on a moment's notice to remain competitive. And while reputation and word-of-mouth referrals are still incredibly important to attorneys and law firms, reputation and work ethic alone will not succeed as the sole form of advertising and marketing.

With advertising becoming more complex, and rapidly evolving due to the pace of technological innovation, there are many challenges that attorneys face in today's environment. For attorneys looking to receive consistent leads so that they can focus on client acquisition, RW Lynch offers an all-inclusive program that is designed to facilitate caseload and practice growth.

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